Richards testifies before Senate committee on open space bill | AspenTimes.com
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Richards testifies before Senate committee on open space bill

Janet Urquhart

Property owners could hold out for many times the fair value of their land when a city wants to buy it as open space if proposed state legislation is approved, Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Richards was in Denver to testify before a Senate committee on House Bill 1203, which would curb Aspen’s ability to acquire Smuggler Mountain lands as open space.

Aspen residents have made open space a high priority, Richards told members of the State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

“We have voted to tax ourselves … to pay for open space,” she said.

The committee took no action on the bill yesterday, but heard testimony from representatives of both Aspen and Telluride – municipalities that are fighting what’s known as the “Telluride amendment” to the bill.

The amendment would prohibit municipalities from condemning land outside their borders as open space without the consent of both the property owner and the government that has jurisdiction over the parcel.

Critics contend the amendment is aimed specifically at thwarting Telluride’s attempt to condemn 570 acres of undeveloped land at its entrance known as the Valley Floor.

It could also hamper Aspen’s ability to condemn land on Smuggler as open space, though the city has made no move to go that route. In fact, the city has never condemned open space, Richards told the committee.

Without that option in a government’s back pocket, though, a property owner could hold up taxpayers for many times a parcel’s value when it’s considered a crucial piece of open space, Richards said. A landowner receives a fair market price for property through the condemnation process, she added.

Aspen and Pitkin County have identified private lands on Smuggler, owned by George “Wilk” Wilkinson, as an open space priority.

Wilkinson was not on hand to testify yesterday, but Sen. Bruce Cairns, a member of the committee, said he’d received an e-mail from Wilkinson.

“Evidently, he would have different testimony than you do,” Cairns told Richards.

Leslie Fields, a land-use attorney who has done work for both Aspen and Telluride, told senators the amendment would “cripple” the open space programs of many municipalities.

A Telluride Town Council member, as well as a San Miguel County commissioner, also testified.

Thomas Ragonetti, a Denver land-use attorney representing the San Miguel Valley Corp., owner of the Valley Floor, characterized the amendment as an attempt to curb “misuse of condemnation power.”

Telluride is attempting to condemn a swath of land larger than the town site itself, Ragonetti said, calling it an “absurd situation.”

It’s not a matter of price – the owner of the Valley Floor simply isn’t interested in selling the land, the committee was told.

The irony, Ragonetti said, is the owners of land outside a city’s borders can’t even vote in the municipality that is trying to condemn their property.

The bill has already passed in the House. One of its sponsors in the Senate, Sen. Mark Hillman, urged the committee to hold off its vote while language in the legislation is tweaked.

Proponents of the amendment offered some forceful testimony, Richards conceded after yesterday’s hearing.

“It’s an iffy proposition, to see which way it’s going to go,” she said.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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