Public comment begins on BLM-Sutey land swap
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – A Carbondale-area land swap proposed to the Bureau of Land Management more than a year ago by billionaire landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner is worth further consideration, the agency indicated Monday when it opened a public comment period on the trade after a year-long internal analysis.
The Wexners have been working to acquire about 1,200 acres of BLM land at the base of Mount Sopris – property they want to fold into their Two Shoes Ranch – for more than three years. At the heart of the exchange, which also includes money and a separate deal in Eagle County, is turning over the former Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale to the BLM, along with 117 acres along Prince Creek Road near the Crown, a popular recreational area on BLM land.
The couple initially intended to pursue a congressional land exchange but butted heads with Pitkin County for more than a year in an effort to gain the county’s support for the swap. After negotiations broke off, the land trade was proposed to the BLM in February 2011, allowing the agency to make the call administratively.
“Internally, a lot of people have looked at this,” said BLM public affairs specialist David Boyd on Monday.
A feasibility study, the BLM’s initial analysis of the trade, has been conducted to determine whether the land swap appears to be in the public’s interest and merits further discussion. The agency has concluded the swap is worthy of further review and has initiated a 45-day comment period that will continue through June 20. An in-depth environmental assessment will follow the comment period; a final decision is now expected in 2013, according to the BLM.
“Certainly, it’s not a fast process,” said Aspen attorney Gideon Kaufman, representing the Wexners. “We’re very pleased they (the BLM) recognized the very significant benefit the exchange offers.”
The BLM will host an open house from 4-8 p.m. on May 31 at Carbondale Town Hall to provide information about the proposed trade, answer questions about the proposal and accept written comments. Or, go to http://www.blm.gov/co/crvfo for details about the proposal.
Pitkin County’s deliberations on the exchange, which stretched from initial discussions in April 2009 until the Wexners dropped their request for the county’s support in May 2010, spurred plenty of public discourse, but anyone who wants to weigh in formally on the land swap should do so anew, Boyd advised.
“The more specific their comments are, the more effective they are,” he said. Boyd suggested comments focus on whether the trade is in the public’s interest and on specific issues that should be evaluated as part of the environmental assessment.
Pitkin County commissioners met recently to discuss the swap behind closed doors, but little else has occurred of late in their arena. With Commissioner Jack Hatfield dissenting, commissioners found themselves at odds with other local governments, as well as land conservation and recreation groups, when they questioned components of the land swap and its benefit to the public within the county. The BLM land adjacent to the Wexners’ ranch is in Pitkin County, but the Sutey Ranch, purchased by the couple in 2008 with the trade in mind, is in Garfield County.
The Sutey Ranch, adjacent to the popular Red Hill Special Recreation Area, just north of Carbondale, was touted by supporters of the trade for its recreational possibilities and wildlife habitat. Historic water rights come with the property.
The BLM land at the base of Sopris consists of three parcels that are mostly surrounded by private land and are difficult for the public to access, the BLM noted.
Conservation easements would prevent development on the federal lands that would go under private ownership with the trade.
County commissioners and Open Space and Trails Board members, however, argued the monetary value to be gained by the Wexners in consolidating their trophy ranch, which is split by the largest of the BLM properties sought in the trade, is considerable and would not be taken into account in the congressional review process.
The Wexners’ appraisers later concluded otherwise, but the value of the lands in play, in the BLM’s view, is greater than solely their monetary value, Boyd said. What happens to the value of the Wexners’ overall holdings at Two Shoes Ranch is not the focus, he added.
“We’re strictly looking at the public value,” Boyd said.
Whether the lands to be traded match up, acre for acre, also is not a consideration, according to Steve Bennett, BLM Colorado River Valley field manager.
“It’s important to remember that BLM exchanges are evaluated based on the value of the lands involved – they are not straight acre-for-acre exchanges,” he said in a prepared statement.
The proposed swap, facilitated by Western Land Group, representing the Wexners, does not involve a stretch of the former railroad right of way along the Crystal River south of Carbondale, acquired more recently by the couple, which county open space officials had hoped could be incorporated into a bike trail.
Carbondale town trustees agreed in March that the town should not ask the BLM to link the railroad right of way to the land swap proposal.
Leslie Wexner is the CEO and chairman of the board of the Limited Brands apparel corporation. His local holdings, along with Two Shoes Ranch, also include a home on Red Mountain, overlooking Aspen.
His acquisitions between Prince Creek Road and the Crystal River, including the Two Shoes Ranch properties and pieces of the old rail corridor, total $84.4 million, according to Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director in Pitkin County. The value of the property to be acquired from the BLM through trades in the proposed deal, based on the Wexners’ appraisals, would be far less per acre than what the Wexners have paid to date for the rest of their holdings in the area, he said.
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