Pitkin, Eagle counties pursue El Jebel land
December 23, 2011
ASPEN – Pitkin and Eagle counties will exercise their right of first refusal to purchase about 40 acres of land along the Roaring Fork River in El Jebel, Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, confirmed Thursday.
The move does not commit the counties to the purchase but triggers the next step in the process – an appraisal to determine the land’s value, Will said.
The counties must pay the cost of the appraisal, a Forest Service official has said.
The land is part of a larger tract that was once part of the former Mount Sopris Tree Farm. Another 130 acres or so at the old tree farm were traded to Pitkin and Eagle counties in a land exchange in the 1990s; some of that land became Crown Mountain Park. The Forest Service is now looking to sell the remainder of the property to help fund facilities elsewhere, including redevelopment of its Aspen Ranger District site. A corner of its Aspen property is also for sale.
Both the Forest Service and Eagle County have deemed the riparian area at the former tree farm undevelopable, and the Forest Service intends to place a conservation easement or deed restriction on the 40 acres to protect it from future development and ensure continued public access.
The counties are interested in the property despite those assurances.
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“We definitely want the property to stay in public hands,” Will said. “The public does a better job of protecting public access than private parties do.”
Pitkin County has gone to court in the past to fight for public easements on private land, he noted.
County officials have decried the need to purchase land that’s already in public ownership, but they were not able to dissuade the Forest Service from putting the property up for sale. The purchase would be a first for the Open Space and Trails program, Will said.
“I have never done exactly this sort of thing before, where we’ve purchased land from the federal government for cash,” he said.
The land isn’t part of the national forest but is one of the Forest Service’s administrative assets. Such parcels wouldn’t typically have open space attributes.
“This one happens to have this riparian zone,” Will said.
The riparian parcel is on a lower bench of land; the Forest Service also wants to sell about 28 acres on an upper bench that is considered developable. It currently contains horse pastures, housing and storage. The counties aren’t interested in the upper tract, Will said.
The sale to the counties would require the approval of Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, previously told The Aspen Times. The appraisal sets the price; there is no negotiation, he said.
Given the lack of development potential on the riparian property, Will said he hopes the land can be acquired at a reasonable price despite its prime river frontage. There has been no discussion about how the counties would share the cost; the land is in Eagle County. Will said he’d like to involve the Crown Mountain Recreation District, which has developed Crown Mountain Park, in the discussion.