Pitkin County, Wexners reach deal
ASPEN – Pitkin County announced Friday it has reached an agreement with wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner that allows the local government to throw its support behind a controversial land exchange proposed by the couple.
The deal, forged by the county and the Wexners, is separate from the proposed land swap now under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management. But the agreement enhances wildlife habitat protection and recreation, allowing commissioners to throw their support behind the exchange, the county said in a statement issued Friday.
The proposal currently before the BLM would fold about 1,200 acres of BLM land on the flank of Mount Sopris into the Wexners’ Two Shoes Ranch, putting the federal land in private ownership, in exchange for the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale and adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area. The BLM also would take possession of a 112-acre piece along Prince Creek Road near Carbondale that mountain bikers and others use to access the Crown, a popular recreation area. Finally, the BLM would receive $1.1 million to develop a management plan for the properties it acquires and for their long-term management.
Those components of the deal remain in place and under BLM review, but in addition, through the agreement with the county, the Wexners would place two parcels on their ranch, an area known as Potato Bill, under a conservation easement to protect habitat for bighorn sheep, deer and elk. It was an offer made once before, as the Wexners and county traded proposals.
“That was a key issue for the county,” said Jon Peacock, county manager. “We were pleased the proponents were willing to come back and work with us on that.”
In addition, the Wexners would extinguish development rights for 10 single-family homes on their property, visible in the Crystal River Valley, and move a proposed indoor riding arena from near Highway 133 to a less visible area. The couple once before offered to drop the home-development rights, but as with the Potato Bill easement, when previous talks with the county broke off, that provision was taken off the table.
Finally, under the agreement, the county would receive $700,000 from the Wexners to acquire property and build a one-mile trail adjacent to Prince Creek Road outside Carbondale. The trail would take mountain bikers off a dicey section of the road as they ride to and from the mountain biking parcel that is part of the proposed exchange with the BLM. The county’s Open Space and Trails program previously had land under contract for a parking area and the trail, but it was nullified when an appraisal indicated the trail corridor wasn’t worth what the county had offered for the property.
“One way to look at it is they’re going to buy the property for the county,” Peacock said.
If the county can’t obtain the trail corridor, the $700,000 could be used to improve the Rio Grande Trail connecting to the Crystal River Valley or for other open space opportunities in the Crystal valley.
The benefits (or perceived lack thereof) of the land exchange for Pitkin County long had been a stumbling block for some county officials. The BLM land that would be privatized is in Pitkin, but the Sutey Ranch, which would come into public hands, is in Garfield County. The Sutey property, purchased by the Wexners with the trade in mind, has been touted for its wildlife habitat and recreation values.
The county’s previous opposition to the swap put it at odds with other local governments and various conservation and recreation groups, including Aspen Valley Land Trust. Relationships were strained, at least over the proposed land trade, Peacock conceded.
“We see this as an opportunity to leave some of the disagreements we’ve had over the land exchange behind,” he said.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who previously supported the land swap when his fellow commissioners did not, called “going against the grain” the toughest decision he’d ever made.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that even more benefits have been negotiated,” he said. “It’s a significant step forward.”
The Wexners already own roughly 4,400 acres split into two pieces at Two Shoes. The land swap would consolidate their holdings and increase the ranch to about 5,600 acres. Leslie Wexner is the billionaire CEO and chairman of the board of the Limited Brands corporation.
The couple, through their representatives, initially planned to seek congressional approval of the swap. Unable to garner the county’s support for the plan after protracted negotiations, they instead sought BLM approval of the trade through its administrative process.
The proposal went to the BLM in early 2011 and the agency anticipates releasing an environmental analysis of the trade for public comment in February or March.
The BLM prefers to have Pitkin County’s support for the swap, particularly since Garfield and Eagle counties are already backing the proposal (a separate trade in Eagle County is part of the deal), according to David Boyd, BLM spokesman.
“We’re always looking for county support in the actions we take,” he said.
Gideon Kaufman, an Aspen attorney representing the Wexners, said he anticipated BLM approval of the land trade even without the latest, separate deal involving Pitkin County, but his clients wanted the county’s backing.
“They’re trying to heal some of the negativity that has been created and be good neighbors,” he said.
The agreement will go to commissioners for initial action on Dec. 19, with a public hearing and possible approval on Jan. 8.
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