Parking issue unresolved on Windstar land
April 19, 2013
OLD SNOWMASS – The Rocky Mountain Institute is preparing to sell the Windstar property in Old Snowmass this month without resolving whether the public will have a clear-cut way to reach the trails that loop around 927 acres of the site.
The institute is a partner in the Windstar Land Conservancy, which has a contract to sell the 957-acre property. It was placed on the market last fall for $13.5 million. The institute announced earlier this month that the sale is expected to be complete by the end of April. The prospective buyer and sales amount haven’t been disclosed.
A conservation easement was placed on 927 acres in December 1996 guaranteeing public access to the trails; a 30-acre parcel was retained for possible development. The institute currently has an office at the site, but it is trying to raise money to build a new, state-of-the-art facility in Basalt.
Once the institute relocates and the buyer takes control of the land, nothing in the conservation easement protects the public’s right to park on the land, said Kevin Ward, a neighboring landowner who regularly hikes and rides a horse on the Windstar trails. His research shows that a new owner could refuse to allow parking on the 30 acres, he said.
“You can’t park on Snowmass Creek Road, so where do you park?” he asked.
Ward contends there is a danger that the public will have the right to visit the Windstar property but no practical way to do so if the buyer isn’t willing to grant parking.
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“It’s my concern with any public property that there’s been a gradual privatization of it,” he said.
The Windstar property is of particular interest to people who supported singer John Denver’s vision with the Windstar Foundation. Denver founded the foundation in 1976 and acquired the ranch in Old Snowmass as its headquarters. There is a yoga platform on the undeveloped land. Trails climb in elevation until spectacular views are provided in every direction.
“You can send your spirit out – it’s big,” Ward said.
He said he runs into other people using the trails every time he visits during summer months.
Ward claimed that the institute’s failure to resolve the parking issue “is not in keeping with the spirit of John Denver’s vision.”
“They should sterilize that access and parking lot,” he said.
He has lobbied Pitkin County officials to try to secure the parking. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the Aspen Valley Land Trust are co-holders of the conservation easement.
Dale Will, director of the county program, said he is aware of the potential parking snafu.
“The Windstar conservation easement doesn’t say anything about the parking,” he said.
Will noted that the open space program secured that easement before he was director. He has raised the parking problem with the institute officials in recent years, he said.
“We raised it and tried to solve it,” Will said. “We weren’t able to secure any amendments to the 1996 conservation easement. It wasn’t one that the institute was willing to change.”
Marty Pickett, executive director and general counsel for the institute, confirmed that the nonprofit was unwilling to amend the conservation-easement provisions. Several issues need to be addressed, including prohibition of bicycles on the Windstar trails, she said. The institute felt it was best if all issues with the conservation easement were addressed at once rather than making incremental amendments. They also felt it was best to let the future landowner negotiate those points.
The institute didn’t want to “encumber” the property with agreements on parking, Pickett said. The new owners will know what they want to do with the land and where parking would best blend in.
Pickett said she had “no idea” if it would have lowered the sale value of the property if the institute had negotiated a settlement to long-term parking.
The institute applied in 2004 to redevelop its office building along with affordable housing for staff at the Windstar site. Pickett said the proposal would have addressed long-term parking, as well. The plan wasn’t approved by Pitkin County, so the nonprofit is leaving it to the next owner to resolve the issues with Open Space and Trails and the Aspen Valley Land Trust, she said.
When asked if the next landowner has any incentive to negotiate on the parking issue, Pickett said, “I don’t know.”
Will and land trust Executive Director Martha Cochran are hopeful that parking can be negotiated with no problem with the next landowner. In the worst-case scenario, people would have to ride bicycles to the trailhead and then begin their hike, according to Will. Equestrians would have to ride from off site onto the property to access the trails.
“People would still be able to, in my opinion, walk up the driveway and access the property,” Will said, acknowledging that wouldn’t be the best approach. “It would be kind of difficult for the general public to use the property without parking.”
The Windstar property has numerous conservation benefits, including agricultural uses and wildlife habitat as well as public access to trails, Will said. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails paid for the easement to help the institute acquire interest in the property in 1996. The agency won’t “turn our back on rights that we made an expenditure of public money for,” Will said. Therefore, it will work to secure long-term parking.
If the next owner wants to build a house on the 30-acre portion of the property with no conservation easement, Pitkin County will have leverage in the approval process. For that reason, Cochran is confident that the parking will be secure. In addition, she believes the next owner will be voluntarily cooperative on the issue.
“The new owner won’t want to be the one that closes Windstar to the public,” Cochran said. “I will be very surprised if there is a new owner that doesn’t try to accommodate the public.
“They’re going to want to do something (with development), and Pitkin County’s going to extract a parking lot.”