Pitkin County assesses latest pitch for land swap | AspenTimes.com
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Pitkin County assesses latest pitch for land swap

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – A proposed land swap involving two parcels of land near Carbondale would remove about half as much acreage from the public realm in Pitkin County as the county’s open space program has managed to purchase outright in its 20-year history.

That is but one point county Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will makes in the latest go-round over the controversial trade, in a memo addressed to county commissioners and the Carbondale Town Board. Town trustees requested a memo from Will in preparation for a March 2 meeting in Carbondale that will bring together area elected officials and representatives from several government agencies to hash out the ramifications of the swap.

Landowner Leslie Wexner wants to acquire 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management property adjacent to his Two Shoes Ranch on the north flank of Mount Sopris, south of Carbondale. In exchange, he has offered up the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, located next to the BLM Red Hill Recreation Area, north of Carbondale.

Will, in his memo, reiterates the county’s concerns about the disparity in both the acreage and monetary value of the two parcels, and questions assertions that the exchange as proposed by Wexner is preferable from the standpoint of wildlife protection.

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In the increasingly convoluted series of proposals between the county and Wexner’s representatives, wildlife officials have deemed the latest pitch from Wexner preferable to an alternative advocated by the county. Pitkin County has suggested creating a new open space parcel on the north flank of Sopris, incorporating a piece of Wexner’s Two Shoes Ranch.

The response from Wexner to the county’s proposal, Will wrote, “reaches the striking conclusion that public administration of the Sutey Ranch will be entirely adequate to protect that habitat, while public administration of the Mount Sopris lands could lead to ‘catastrophic’ environmental impacts. It is very difficult for us to understand this distinction.

“Similarly, the response proposes that the Mount Sopris lands should be entirely closed to public recreation, but should remain open to private recreation, as well as largely unrestricted agricultural uses. Again, it is very difficult for us to understand any biological basis for this public recreation/private recreation distinction,” Will said in the memo.

Will also again voiced the county’s concern about the monetary value of the two properties. Wexner purchased the Sutey Ranch for $6.5 million, but it has development potential. He has spent close to $66 million acquiring the properties that make up Two Shoes; the BLM land runs through the middle of the ranch, splitting it into two pieces. With the BLM piece, his landholdings would increase from roughly 4,400 to 5,600 acres.

Wexner’s position, Will said, “dismisses as ‘economic fiction’ our conclusion that the privatization of two square miles of public land within a $65,000,000 assemblage could reap disproportionate economic benefit to Two Shoes. To date, Western Lands Group has refused to provide any written appraisal information to substantiate its contrary claims.”

Andy Wiessner of Western Lands Group is helping broker the deal on Wexner’s behalf along with Aspen attorney Gideon Kaufman. They brought two appraisers who were hired to assess the value of both Sutey Ranch and the BLM land to a meeting of the commissioners in January, but commissioners declined to hear a presentation of the appraisal at that time, instead suggesting a copy of the written appraisal could be submitted.

In response to a recent offer from Wexner to eliminate development rights for 10 houses at Two Shoes, along with a riding arena and other buildings, Will noted that the homes proposed for elimination are the smaller of the houses, clustered on the edge of the property. There are currently approvals for 27 homes at Two Shoes.

Will’s memo also outlines options by which the BLM could seek a federal allocation to purchase the Sutey Ranch without disposing of any of its lands, or initiate the exchange itself through a process that would entail a “comprehensive evaluation” of the parcels involved.

Carbondale trustees initially decided to discuss the proposed land swap on Tuesday after Pitkin County offered an alternative to Wexner’s original proposal, and because trustees previously endorsed the swap with the understanding that the BLM land at the base of Sopris was on the BLM’s disposal list. It has not been designated for potential disposal, but that doesn’t preclude consideration of the proposed exchange, the agency has made clear.

Wexner’s representatives intend to seek congressional approval of the swap, and have been seeking support from local governments and other entities with an interest in the exchange. Pitkin County declined to endorse the swap as it was initially proposed, though commissioners unanimously approved the county’s alternative proposal. The latter was rejected by the Wexners.

Commissioners have taken no formal stand on the latest, modified proposal from Wexner, unveiled last week.

Tuesday’s meeting is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. at Carbondale Town Hall.

janet@aspentimes.com


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