Local officials argue over Aspen Mass open space

Janet Urquhart

Elected officials clashed Tuesday over how much Aspen and Pitkin County should recoup from the sale of Aspen Mass, a property the two governments own jointly.In September, City Council members and county commissioners agreed with a plan to preserve the parcel as open space, transferring money from their respective open space programs to their housing funds.Housing dollars were used to purchase Aspen Mass, almost 35 acres across Highway 82 from Cozy Point Ranch, near the intersection of the highway and Brush Creek Road. The land, purchased in 1998, has since been taken off the table as a potential site for affordable housing.The property was purchased for $1.65 million with the city putting up $1.05 million and the county providing the rest.A calculation of what those funds would have earned in the city and county investment portfolios since 1998 put the purchase price at $2.26 million, but the city and county open space boards are willing to spend $1.8 million – $900,000 apiece.A more limited open space purchase could preserve about 15 key acres, including some 300 feet of frontage along the Roaring Fork River. That would leave roughly 20 acres on an upper bench along the highway that could be sold for free-market development, generating more money for affordable housing.The entire Aspen Mass property already has approvals for three free-market homes of up to 5,750 square feet, which could be boosted to 15,000 square feet.Some elected officials indicated they’d be willing to designate the entire parcel as open space and reimburse the housing funds to the tune of $1.8 million, sparking vehement objections from Commissioner Shellie Roy and Councilwoman Rachel Richards.The property is worth even more than the $2.26 million, they argued. Richards accused her colleagues of letting the city housing fund “take it in the shorts” if it doesn’t at least recoup what it would have accrued in investment earnings since 1998.”I really don’t want to shortchange the housing fund by selling it below market,” Roy said, suggesting commissioners would be shirking their fiduciary responsibilities by selling it for less than its full value.”I’m very uncomfortable with where we’re going,” she said.The City Council doesn’t have a legal obligation to maximize its profits on the land, but it risks public criticism if the open space funds pay less than $2.26 million for the parcel, advised John Worcester, city attorney.A proposal to sell some of the parcel on the open market but limit development to 5,750 square feet, including a house that can’t exceed 25 feet in height and any agricultural buildings, didn’t excite most of the elected officials. Roy, however, said that option would be acceptable to her.That sale, at an estimated $1.4 million, plus about $800,000 from the two open space programs to conserve about 15 acres, would fully reimburse the housing funds.”I personally would rather see this left undeveloped,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said. “Anytime we can prevent development of any sort in that corridor, it’s a positive.”Both the council and commissioners ultimately agreed to send the proposal back to their respective open space boards and urge them to put up $1.13 million apiece to preserve the entire property for a total price of $2.26 million.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is