Pitkin County open space officials adopt land-exchange policy
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – A long-discussed land exchange policy won unanimous approval Thursday from the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board of trustees after more than six months of debate and multiple rewrites of the document.
The policy will guide the board in its consideration of proposed congressional land exchanges – when someone seeks an act of Congress to swap properties involving federal lands. Board members indicated they will ask county commissioners to adopt the policy, as well.
Efforts to draft the policy began last year, after lengthy negotiations between the county and billionaire landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner broke off. The Wexners sought to fold Bureau of Land Management acreage into their ranch at the base of Mount Sopris, south of Carbondale, in exchange for the Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale. They purchased the Sutey property with the swap in mind.
The Wexners intended to seek congressional approval of the exchange, but wanted Pitkin County’s endorsement. They never secured that support and talks ended last May, leaving the fate of the swap up in the air.
The new policy establishes several conditions that must be met before the Open Space and Trails board will consider analyzing an exchange and making a recommendation on the proposal.
“We’ve set a very high bar,” said board member Tim McFlynn, board chairman.
The requirements include published, written notices of a proposed exchange in each affected jurisdiction, identifying the parties involved in the exchange and the lands being considered for the swap.
The policy also requires an appraisal, done at the county’s behest and paid for by the proponent, that analyzes the value of the proponent’s property both before and after the proposed exchange. The appraisal must show that any increase in the market value of the property owned by the proponent is less than the market value of the federal lands included in the exchange before the swap occurs.
In the Wexner proposal, the county maintained that the BLM land the couple wanted to acquire was far more valuable to the Wexners than it would be to anyone else, and that the appraisal used for a federal land swap wouldn’t take that value into account.
The policy also demands that there is no net loss of publicly owned land in Pitkin County or, as an alternative, other acceptable public land within the Roaring Fork River watershed. No net loss in public access to lands within the county is also a requirement.
The policy notes that its requirements are not intended to override any existing federal laws or regulations governing an exchange. The information is solely to guide the county in evaluating a proposed land swap.
In October, the Open Space and Trails board hosted a forum on what was, at that time, the latest iteration of the exchange policy. The goals of the policy were praised by Denver-based appraiser Mark Weston, of Hunsperger and Weston Ltd., who has advised the county on the policy. Adam Poe, president of Western Land Group, cautioned the county against drafting hard-and-fast rules for consideration of a land trade. Poe’s company worked on the Wexners’ behalf in their proposed land exchange.
The policy could inhibit future trades that benefit the county, Poe said at the forum, noting the county has benefited from past federal land exchanges.
On Thursday, county Commissioner Michael Owsley urged the Open Space and Trails board to share the policy with other interested jurisdictions. Pitkin County did not find a lot of examples among other governmental agencies to use as a guide in drafting its policy, though the document does reference a similar policy adopted by the Montana Board of Land Commissioners.
“I think there’ll be a lot of people interested in this,” Owsley said.
“I hope it’s useful across the West,” said board member Hawk Greenway.
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