Pitkin County, Wexner talk behind closed doors
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Pitkin County commissioners and landowner Abigail Wexner met behind closed doors Tuesday in an attempt to negotiate a deal for a Carbondale-area land exchange that Wexner and her husband, Leslie, proposed more than a year ago.
Proposals and counter-proposals have left the two sides at an impasse, but the commissioners’ decision to convene into a private meeting to unveil ideas to make the exchange palatable from their perspective was met with criticism from some in attendance.
Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt asked Pitkin County officials if they were convening the executive session, closed to the public, for the purpose of contract negotiations. County Attorney John Ely said the purpose was discussion of items related to a land negotiation.
He cited the state statute that permits such sessions for “determining positions relative to matters that may be subject to negotiations; developing strategy for negotiations; and instructing negotiators.”
“They’re not a party to this exchange. This is wrong,” said Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, as the general public exited the room.
Remaining inside were Wexner and her representatives, including attorney Gideon Kaufman, who said he didn’t want it to appear a deal was “cooked” in private.
Commissioner George Newman called for the executive session in order to have “a clear and honest exchange of ideas.”
The county has a “shopping list” of options, he said. Some of them involve property acquisitions that have not been publicly discussed previously, added Commissioner Rachel Richards.
“They’re just not for public discussion at this time,” she said.
Meeting with outside parties in an executive session is rare, as only the county officials are bound by the rules to keep what is discussed under wraps. Commissioners indicated a public meeting should be scheduled to further discuss any compromise proposal that emerges.
Before convening in private, Wexner and the commissioners engaged in a cordial exchange, expressing their views on what has become a controversial proposal to fold 1,268 acres of Bureau of Land Management property into the Wexners’ Two Shoes Ranch, south of Carbondale, in exchange for the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of Carbondale, near Red Hill.
The BLM land is in Pitkin County, while the Sutey Ranch, purchased by the Wexners with the trade in mind, is in Garfield County.
“We thought in our heart of hearts that the proposal was fair,” said Wexner, meeting face-to-face with commissioners for the first time.
The Sutey Ranch, valued for wildlife and recreational attributes, is easily accessed by the public, while the BLM land is not, she noted.
Though the Wexners have since sweetened the deal with various additional offers, including foregoing some development rights at Two Shoes, commissioners have balked at endorsing the trade. The Wexners want the county’s support before seeking congressional approval of the swap.
Commissioner Michael Owsley said he felt a responsibility to protect public land in the county and said he feared the swap would set a precedent. Newman and fellow Commissioner Jack Hatfield both indicated they want an exchange that offers more benefit to the residents of Pitkin County, given that the Sutey property is in Garfield County.
If the exchange does take place, Richards said she’d like the deal to set the bar high enough to prevent a flood of other such proposals.
“You and your family have the chance to become the standard-bearers for conservation in this community,” she told Wexner.
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