Pitkin County open space officials pan Sutey trade
October 16, 2009
ASPEN – Citing philosophical qualms with the privatization of public lands and doubts that a proposed land swap involving parcels near Carbondale would be a fair trade, the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board voted unanimously Thursday to recommend that county commissioners reject the deal.
“I think the private interests here far outweigh the public benefits,” said board member Anne Rickenbaugh, echoing thoughts expressed by several of her colleagues regarding the proposed swap of 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management property on the north flank of Mount Sopris for the 513-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of the Red Hill recreation area.
Billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner purchased the Sutey Ranch for $6.5 million with the trade in mind, hoping to add the BLM acreage to his adjacent Two Shoes Ranch landholdings. His representatives recently sweetened the deal with $1 million worth of added enticements, including $750,000 for an Open Space and Trails Program land acquisition.
Wexner’s representatives hope to secure Pitkin County’s support for the swap to help ease congressional approval. The BLM land is in Pitkin County, though the Sutey Ranch is in Garfield County.
Dale Will, open space and trails director, expressed doubt that the federal appraisal that would be done as part of the trade, if Congress approves it, would take into account the value of “assemblage” – the added value he suggested the strip of BLM land gains by virtue of the adjacent acreage Wexner has amassed around it.
“My opinion is we are not looking at a balanced proposal here,” Will said.
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If the feds determine the BLM land is worth more, he would be required to pay the difference, according to Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group, which is brokering the deal. Wexner would eat the difference if the Sutey Ranch was appraised at a higher value.
The monetary value doesn’t really matter since both parcels would be preserved and the development rights, including energy and mineral development, extinguished, Wiessner suggested.
“The focus on the money part seems small – seems like the trees when we’re talking about the forest here,” agreed Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust. The organization supports the trade but is not a player in the swap.
“It’s very easy to grasp why to be in favor of this,” conceded board member Tim McFlynn, noting the deal would preserve both properties with no public outlay of funds. He endorsed the swap last spring, but voted against it Thursday, joining others in questioning the ultimate value to Two Shoes Ranch, where 28 homes can be built on the land surrounding the BLM property.
McFlynn pondered the value of a place to build “Wildcat West,” in reference to the large homes developed at Wildcat Ranch outside of Snowmass Village.
That development could occur at Two Shoes regardless of the land swap, said attorney Gideon Kaufman, representing Wexner.
Hawk Greenway, open space board chairman, reiterated his opposition to the trade, and said “turning our public lands into private playgrounds” is not in the public’s interest.
Though McFlynn and board member Howie Mallory expressed hope that a deal could still be forged, Kaufman urged the board to take a vote and send the matter to county commissioners. Greenway, Rickenbaugh and board member Franz Froelicher all expressed philosophical objections and aren’t likely to change their minds, Kaufman concluded.