City acquires Verena Mallory trail

The city of Aspen is now part owner of a trail easement near Hunter Creek that has been the subject of a lawsuit for three years.

Aspen City Council on Monday night approved the acquisition of the Verena Mallory Trail, which is a short single-track that offers an alternative to the steep, rocky road that leads into the Hunter Creek Valley.

There’s been fear that the trail would be closed to the public after the land-conservation group Aspen Valley Land Trust found discrepancies in the deed for the Verena Mallory parcel. Fritz Benedict donated it in 1993 to what was then called the Park Trust.

In 2014, city officials were researching potential trail connections along the flanks of Smuggler Mountain. As those discussions advanced, AVLT took a closer look at the deed and determined it didn’t permit the existence of the trail. The nonprofit planned to close the trail and completely restore it.

That’s when a local group, called the Friends of the Verena Mallory Trail Association, Inc., filed a lawsuit to block the closure of the trail.

The agreement between the city and AVLT is essentially a settlement to the litigation. The Pitkin County commissioners are set to approve a similar agreement today, making the county co-owners with the city.

Both governments will take on the costs of maintaining the trail, which is estimated to be minimal, said Austin Weiss, the city’s parks and open space director.

It cost the city no money to acquire the trail.

“We’re glad we can keep the trail open,” Weiss said.

He added that it makes sense for the city and county own the trail together since they are partners on the Smuggler Open Space.

“We are shoulder-to-shoulder on a bunch of different projects up there,” he said.

Suzanne Stephens, executive director of AVLT, said she is limited in what she could say about the deal because it is not fully settled yet.

It is not clear why the future of the trail was caught up in three years of legal wrangling with the end result a transfer of the easement to the city and county. Stephens said there is a lot of legal nuance around the issue.

In a prepared statement sent out last week, Stephens said the organization’s position has been that it is obligated to uphold the wording in the deed.

“However, we are agreeing to grant an easement for this trail based on the fact that this trail has been in the public domain for so long, with a strong case for a prescriptive easement,” AVLT’s statement said. “After exploring our legal options, we feel this is the best way forward for all sides.”

On Tuesday, Stephens said her organization is pleased and the agreement is “a good outcome.”