Pitkin County cool on land trade
July 22, 2009
ASPEN – A Carbondale-area land swap touted as a “no-brainer” by its proponents didn’t find favor with Pitkin County officials Tuesday. But they didn’t reject it, either.
After a discussion that ran 90 minutes longer than the allotted one hour, both county commissioners and the Open Space and Trails Board tabled a proposed resolution that not only opposed the trade, but called for the county to actively fight congressional approval of the swap.
“That’s like war-mongering,” said Carbondale resident Davis Farrar, urging commissioners to remain silent if they can’t support the proposal. Proponents are seeking the county’s blessing before taking the trade to Congress.
The swap, in a nutshell, would turn 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management acreage on the north flank of Mount Sopris over to billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner in exchange for the 513-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of the Red Hill recreation area near Carbondale. The BLM land, which would connect Wexner’s existing landholdings, is in Pitkin County; the ranch is in Garfield County.
Wexner’s representatives sweetened the deal Tuesday, announcing he would give up the one proposed building site on the BLM land. Conservation easements on both properties would prevent building development, as well as oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction.
The deal would protect both properties without a dime of taxpayer expense, pointed out Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust.
Recommended Stories For You
The Sutey Ranch could see the development of 260 homes under Garfield County zoning, according to Western Land Group Inc., which is working to broker the trade.
“We are confounded – the public. This seems like a slam dunk,” said Laurie Stevens, a neighbor of the Sutey property. “If this doesn’t go through, we’re screwed. Will Wexner get richer? I don’t know. I don’t care. It takes someone like that to make this possible because I don’t have the money and neither does Garfield County.”
“This is a terrific deal, to me,” said Carbondale resident Jim Breasted, urging commissioners to “be a good neighbor.”
“I just hope you look at this as a valleywide gain, not a Pitkin County win or loss,” said Garfield County resident Gloria Wallace.
Citizens, mostly Garfield County residents, along with other area governments, have rallied in support of the trade, prodding Pitkin County to consider the greater, valleywide public good.
Pitkin County has been made to look like the bad guy for taking a critical look at the proposal and the precedent it could set for privatizing public lands, said Commissioner Rachel Richards.
“I think the federal precedent is huge,” she said.
“It behooves us to be super careful when we’re giving away the national land,” said Franz Froelicher, Open Space Board member.
Pitkin County representatives didn’t deny the value of conserving the Sutey Ranch for both its wildlife habitat and potential recreational opportunities, but they questioned the BLM’s ability to manage the parcel and made note of Garfield County’s ability to preserve it with a purchase from its general fund, though the county lacks an open space program.
“How many Sutey Ranches are out there? This isn’t going to be it. What are you going to do about it?” said Anne Rickenbaugh, Open Space Board member, directing her question at Garfield County residents in the audience.
“This is stop-gap at best to a larger problem,” Richards said, expressing hope that the Sutey Ranch triggers a Garfield County discussion about appropriate zoning for agricultural lands.
Turning public land over to private ownership is a “dangerous precedent,” said Commissioner George Newman, calling for some “significant benefit” to Pitkin County out of the deal.
“This is not the only billionaire in our neighborhood,” said Hawk Greenway, chairman of the Open Space Board, also urging caution. “He’s not going to be last billionaire who hires the best hired guns.”
Commissioner Jack Hatfield called for a contribution of replacement land within Pitkin County. “The deal on the table now just isn’t ripe enough for me,” he said.
There was also a call for continued public access to the BLM piece, even if it is turned over to Wexner. The land is difficult to access, but does connect to other public land at the base of Sopris.
Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested Wexner was holding the community hostage by purchasing the Sutey Ranch and then tying its fate to the land trade.
“I’m offended by it,” he said.
Owsley called for Wexner to donate the Sutey Ranch to Garfield County as the first piece of a county open space program there.
“He can afford it, he can see that it’s right, and he should do it,” Owsley said.
The Open Space Board will meet with Wexner’s representatives again before making a recommendation to commissioners. The board’s next scheduled meeting is Aug. 6.
“We’ll take a look at their suggestions,” said Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group, after the meeting.
“We would like to have their support,” he added. “If we cannot get their support, we’ll have to look at what the other options are.”