Rules partly shield county
November 26, 2005
Pitkin County is better equipped than most parts of the West to deal with possible sales of federal lands, according to two attorneys who helped craft local restrictions on backcountry development.But former Pitkin County Attorney Tim Whitsitt and former Pitkin County Commissioner Jim True said a congressional proposal that would make it easier for mining companies and developers to acquire claims on federal land would still have huge ramifications.Pitkin County got ahead of the issue when it passed legislation about 11 years ago that limits the amount and type of development that can occur a half-mile or more from established roads. That restriction, called rural and remote zoning, limits development to one 1,000-square-foot cabin per 35 acres of land.”In this you could say Pitkin County is miles ahead of most jurisdictions,” said Whitsitt, who served as the county attorney from 1990 to 1995 and is now in private practice in Carbondale. “Most counties don’t have anything approaching that.”Drain on servicesRural and remote zoning was created because skyrocketing land prices in Pitkin County created pressure to develop further off the beaten track. Owners of secluded parcels of land sensed they could make a killing if they secured a development right. In many cases, those secluded pieces of land were patented mining claims surrounded by or adjacent to national forest lands.”What spurred rural and remote was clearly the pressure the backcountry was going to see from development of patented mining claims,” said True, an Aspen attorney and a Pitkin County commissioner from 1988 through 1996. He was one of the champions of the backcountry restrictions.In addition to restricting development to a 1,000-square-foot cabin, rural and remote zoning gives landowners in affected areas the option of forgoing development and selling a transferable development right from their property. True said part of the concern was simply the visual effect that development would have on the pristine lands of the White River National Forest around Aspen. County officials also worried that development would drain coffers for road maintenance and firefighting because of extra costs serving “big homes in very remote areas.”True and four other commissioners unanimously approved rural and remote zoning. It raised some controversy but was widely popular in Aspen. A recall effort was launched against the commissioners over the legislation, but no one was booted from office.New face on old issueRoughly 12 years later, Pitkin County faces another potential threat from mining claim development.The U.S. House approved a spending bill Nov. 18 that would end a moratorium on converting unpatented mining claims – which can be mined but not developed – into patented mining claims, which the holder owns and can develop. The moratorium has been in place since 1994.The bill could result in private companies and individuals buying large tracts of federal land. It would also make it easier to file and expand claims even if the land has been stripped of minerals, according to an analysis by The New York Times.The harshest critics contended that the bill was intentionally crafted to benefit the real estate development industry.The spending bill the U.S. Senate approved didn’t contain the provision on mining claims. A conference committee is meeting in December to iron out differences. Opposition is building against the mining claim provision, but its fate is uncertain.Proliferation of cabinsTrue and Whitsitt said some of the benefits Pitkin County has enjoyed from rural and remote zoning could deteriorate if the mining claim provision survives as written. Whitsitt noted that the law could trigger new efforts by people or companies to file claims on hundreds of thousands of federal land around Aspen, then patent and develop them.”It would pressure Pitkin County phenomenally,” True said. Rural and remote zoning would limit only part of the threat.If federal land is sold, some of it will inevitably be within a half-mile of an existing road and could be developed with large homes, True said. In those cases, rural and remote zoning wouldn’t apply.Elsewhere in Pitkin County the mining bill threatens to create a proliferation of cabins allowable under rural and remote. Pitkin County wouldn’t see an influx of monster homes, also known as McMansions, but little luxury cabins could dot hillsides popular with hikers, mountain bikers, dirt bikers and other backcountry enthusiasts.Whitsitt noted that the impact would be even greater in other parts of western Colorado, such as Garfield and Eagle counties, which don’t have rural and remote restrictions. He said the proposed mining provisions have less to do with mining than with development.”It’s a cheap federal real estate bill,” Whitsitt said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.