Open space board puts leases on hold for Emma-area ranch
Pitkin County’s first large-scale experiment to preserve a historic ranch by leasing the land for agricultural uses came to an abrupt but possibly temporary halt Thursday.
The Open Space and Trails Board of Trustees decided it couldn’t approve six leases on 156 acres of the Glassier Open Space because it was uncomfortable or uncertain with various terms.
“I think we would be criticized for what we have before us,” said board member Tim McFlynn.
The staff recommended approval of leases to four parties that proposed everything from traditional grazing of livestock and growing hay to planting fruit trees, producing vegetables and raising rabbits. The leases favored by the staff were for low rates per acre.
Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of the open space program, said the idea was to provide inexpensive leases on four smaller parcels to serve as an incubator for innovative agricultural uses. Inexpensive rental rates were advised on two larger parcels because the proposed renters have worked that land for years and would do what it takes to keep it in good shape, according to Paul Holsinger, land officer for the open space program.
The recommendation was to lease the 94.2-acre Parcel B to Rory and Lucy Cerise for $18.50 per acre. That would be $1,742.70 annually for a suggested lease of five years.
The staff also advised renting the 44.5-acre Parcel A to Alec Parker for $450 annually. The term of the lease was suggested at five years, with the ability for Parker to extend that for two years if he rotated crops.
Both the Cerises and Parker rented the property and ran livestock on it before Pitkin County and partners purchased it.
Open space board member and cattle rancher Tai Jacober slammed the proposed leases to the ranchers as too unfavorable for the county.
“We’re not even in the ballpark,” Jacober said. “We’re not even close.”
Jacober said many agricultural leases are based on production of hay. He speculated that the 44.5-acre parcel could produce a hay crop that could be sold for $45,000 even if it was done “half-assedly.” Under that scenario, the landowner would receive significantly more than $450 per year, he said.
High-end hay sells for about $200 per ton in the Roaring Fork Valley. It would take about 225 tons to generate $45,000 in sales or a yield of about 5 tons per acre. That is an extremely high yield for high-elevation fields that typically have poor soil in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to a local farmer.
Other board members agreed that the county’s rental rate was unrealistic.
“Anybody looking at this would wonder why the number is so low,” McFlynn said.
“This is one of the things that wrinkled my brow,” said board member Hawk Greenway.
But Tennenbaum said the goals discussed by the open space staff and board focused on preserving the land.
“We’ve been trying to preserve agricultural lands for 25 years. We’ve been trying really hard,” he said.
Traditionally, the open space program hasn’t had a lot of interest from people wanting to lease its agricultural lands. Therefore, the staff was focused on getting the right people on the land and providing sustainable leases.
“We don’t want people to come in as part of a bidding war,” Holsinger said.
Jacober said he wouldn’t have a problem with a bidding war for the larger parcels.
Board members were also critical of the proposed five-year leases for the Cerises and Parker and expressed support for one-year leases. Tennenbaum said it would be difficult to get the ranchers to commit for only one year. The Cerises need the certainty of land to set their stock numbers, he said.
Jacober insisted that a one-year lease for agricultural lands was nothing unusual. To grant five years at such low rates is “a black eye, almost,” he said.
Greenway suggested that the open space staff do a market analysis to find out what agricultural lands rent for between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. That information could be used to determine a fair rent for the county and renters, he said. Meanwhile, the Cerises and Parker could be offered a one-year lease for 2015, he said.
The board members were more willing to consider long-term leases for Parcels C, D, E and F, which range from 0.6 to 10.3 acres. The staff advised renting 3 acres to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for 10 years at $75 annually. ACES and a partner want to produce vegetables and possibly raise small animals.
The staff also recommended granting long-term, low-dollar leases to the Glassier Agricultural Co-Operative, which plans to plant fruit trees, grow vegetables and flowers and raise rabbits.
The parties need a long-term lease as incentive to make the investments necessary to achieve their goals, Tennenbaum said.
The open space board members ultimately said they would consider longer leases at low annual rates if ACES and the co-op would provide detailed operational plans. Board members said they had to be convinced the favorable leases are justified.
Jacober said the board doesn’t want to micromanage the open space program, but it needed more information before it could move forward on the leases.
Tennenbaum said the open space staff will work with the prospective renters of the small parcels and try to bring detailed operation plans back to the open space board March 5. Setting a course on the two larger parcels will likely take more time, he said.
Rory Cerise didn’t attend the meeting but said the scenario described by a reporter made it sound like the open space board was “shortsighted and uninformed.” He said an annual review of his performance as a leaseholder would be fine, but he needed a long-term lease for his cattle-ranching operation. He rented a major portion of the Glassier ranch for 15 years before Pitkin County purchased it.
If the open space program presses for higher rents on Parcel B, it will require the leaseholder to seek higher yield from the land, Cerise said. That would require use of chemical fertilizers.
“You’d have to push it good,” Cerise said.
Cerise also questioned why the open space board is determined to maximize income from its agricultural lands. Most of the property it acquires is managed for recreation or purely as open space. He questioned why the board doesn’t want to maximize income from recreational lands, such as charging a fee to mountain bikers.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User