Pitkin, Eagle counties eye El Jebel land purchase | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin, Eagle counties eye El Jebel land purchase

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Courtesy Pitkin County/Google earthThe El Jebel riparian area that Pitkin and Eagle counties are interested in preserving is outlined in yellow; the upper bench is outlined in blue. The large open tract with the green playing field is Crown Mountain Park.

ASPEN – Pitkin and Eagle counties have formally expressed their interest in purchasing about 40 acres along the Roaring Fork River in El Jebel from the U.S. Forest Service.

A letter to Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, signed by the open space directors in both counties, sets the wheels in motion for a process that may give the counties the right of first refusal to buy the land. The price has yet to be established.

The Forest Service was required to offer the property to the two counties first, according to Fitzwilliams, as the two governments acquired the bulk of the El Jebel land in a trade with the agency in the 1990s. The river parcel is part of what was once a tree nursery known as the Mount Sopris Tree Farm, now the site of Crown Mountain Park and an Eagle County administrative office building.

The Forest Service held onto the riparian land near the river and a roughly 28-acre upper bench that includes a pasture for horses, a hay field and a small housing complex for employees. The parcel is now among a handful of underused administrative properties scattered around the sprawling White River National Forest that the agency intends to sell in order to fund capital improvement projects within the forest, such as redevelopment of its Aspen office site.

The two counties are interested only in the 40 acres along the river, but Pitkin County commissioners this week asked Fitzwilliams if local governments could simply take management of the acreage off the federal agency’s hands without buying it.

“I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to be spending public funds to buy public property,” said Commissioner George Newman.

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Fitzwilliams didn’t disagree, and he has previously assured commissioners that public access to the river would be maintained, but a sale of the land remains the agency’s desire, he said after meeting with commissioners.

“Our preference is to sell the property, knowing that we want to protect the riparian area,” Fitzwilliams said.

It is the expectation that the 40-acre riparian strip is not developable, which means that most of the value of the parcel is in the upper bench, he said. The two pieces could be split apart and the riparian piece sold to the counties, Fitzwilliams said. The rest could be sold in a competitive bid process.

“I wish they’d just keep the darn thing,” said Dale Will, Pitkin County open space and trails director, regarding Forest Service ownership of the river land.

The property is in Eagle County, but is an appropriate piece for the counties to pursue jointly if that’s the best approach to preserving it, Will said.

“We signed the letter in order to let the Forest Service know the protection of that piece of property is of community-wide interest,” Will said.

Toby Sprunk, the new open space director in Eagle County, said he has yet to see the land in question, but has been apprised of its conservation values by Will and Eagle County commissioners.

“It sounds like an intriguing piece of property to conserve,” he said.

A direct sale of the 40 acres to the counties will require the approval of Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., according to Fitzwilliams. An appraisal will determine the price, and Sprunk said it’s his understanding that the counties must pick up the cost of the appraisal.

“Once that price is set, that’s it,” Fitzwilliams said. “It’s either take it at that price or leave it.”

The counties are under no obligation to make the purchase, though.

“If we see that purchase price and say, ‘You know what, that’s too much,’ we can walk away,” Sprunk said.

Despite prime river frontage, the fact that the wetlands can’t be developed should hold down the price, Will reasoned.

“We’re hoping it’s going to be a modest sum,” he said.

janet@aspentimes.com