Pitkin County land swap policy garners varied response
July 13, 2010
ASPEN – A proposed policy that Pitkin County could use to evaluate future proposed land exchanges has been alternately criticized as “ill-advised” and praised as “admirable” by experts in the field.
The county Open Space and Trails board of trustees met last week to discuss a policy that, in its current draft form, would establish conditions for federal land exchanges that must be met to win the board’s endorsement.
“They are hoping to come up with something that is also something the county commissioners might want to utilize for their own deliberations,” said Dale Will, county open space director. Commissioners have not been involved in drafting the policy thus far, he added.
The move comes on the heels of a lengthy negotiation between the county and billionaire landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner over a proposed land swap before the Wexners in May withdrew their request for county support of the deal.
A policy, had it been established before the land swap came before the county, would have been helpful, Will said.
What comes of the discussions, however, should be a broad policy, not a reaction to the Wexner proposal, said open space board member Tim McFlynn.
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“This should not be seen as a Wexner policy discussion,” he said at the outset of Thursday’s discussion, a recording of which was made available at The Aspen Times’ request.
Adam Poe, president of Western Lands Group, a private firm helping broker the Wexners’ proposed trade, wrote a letter to the open space board urging officials not to adopt the proposed policy and calling it “ill-advised.”
The policy, he wrote, appears to have been drafted to retroactively support the board’s opposition to the Wexner land exchange.
Pitkin County has benefited from various federal land exchanges, Poe noted – 7,319 acres were added to the national forest between 1994 and 2010, he said, while 93.29 acres were conveyed out of federal ownership.
“Thus, federal land exchanges have clearly been an important component of Pitkin County’s effort to preserve and protect open space,” Poe wrote. “However, the proposed Land Swap Policy Draft appears to violate numerous provisions of federal land exchange laws, rules and regulations. As such, we believe federal agencies might give less credence to Pitkin County comments in the future, and that the proposed policies might undermine the county’s credibility with a variety of parties.”
The Wexners had offered to turn the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, which they purchased for $6.5 million, over to the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 1,268 acres of BLM land abutting their Two Shoes Ranch. Sutey Ranch is located north of Carbondale and the Red Hill Recreation Area, in Garfield County; Two Shoes is situated south of Carbondale, on the north flank of Mount Sopris, in Pitkin County.
Pitkin County was asked to support the deal, for which the Wexners intended to seek congressional approval, but commissioners balked, raising concerns that the BLM land was of greater value to the Wexners than a standard federal appraisal would conclude, by virtue of its addition to their other landholdings.
The Wexners are presently continuing to evaluate their options, according to their attorney, Gideon Kaufman.
“Hopefully, this is not going away,” Kaufman said.
The Open Space and Trails board met Thursday with Jon Freeman, lands program manager for the White River National Forest in Glenwood Springs, and Mark Weston, a Denver-area appraiser who works on conservation easement appraisals.
The federal appraisal for a land swap would not consider the net increase in value to surrounding lands, he confirmed, but would assess the market value of only the federal parcel. Lands that have constrained access or no access would be appraised at a lower rate, Weston said.
Once in private hands, an appraisal for a conservation easement placed over the parcel to restrict its use would take into account its value in relation to adjacent lands under the same ownership, he said.
The difference in value assigned to the same land under the two different appraisals can be significant, Weston said.
Additionally, the private party to such a swap can realize tax benefits, and a state income tax credit from donation of a conservation easement. A deal may look like a fair value exchange, but in reality, the private proponent is getting “several bites of the apple,” he said.
The proposed county policy calls for an appraisal of the full economic benefit to the exchange proponent and a net public financial gain to Pitkin County.
It’s appropriate, Weston said, for the county to ask about the value to be gained by an exchange proponent.
“I think from a public policy perspective, what you’re doing is admirable,” he said.
Poe, however, said the county’s proposed appraisal would “involve mostly impermissible conjecture and speculation as to what the land is worth to one individual or entity… .”
The county isn’t trying to supplant the federally required appraisal as part of a land swap, but would be requiring yet another layer of information, Will countered.
The proposed policy also calls for no net loss in publicly owned land in Pitkin County and no net loss in public access to public lands in the county, among other conditions.
Martha Cochran, president of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which supported the proposed Sutey-Two Shoes land swap, called a framework for reviewing land exchanges a good idea.
Cochran said the proposed policy had not been reviewed by the AVLT board, but she offered her own insights in an e-mail to the Open Space and Trails Board.
She suggested a county-required appraisal beyond the scope of government standards would “have no credibility outside of Pitkin County government.”
Among other observations, Cochran also said a policy calling for no net loss of acreage would be “very limiting” and said such a condition might not serve the county well in the long term.
The open space board came to no conclusion, but intends to continue discussion of the proposed policy.