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Save ranches – at what cost?

Allyn Harvey

The seemingly endless task of creating incentives to save the county’s rapidly disappearing agricultural land from residential development took a big step forward this week.

Pitkin County began hashing out details Tuesday on a voluntary program designed to reduce development on the county’s remaining ranches and farms.

But by the end of Tuesday’s meeting with the county commissioners, Ellen Hunt was concerned about the fate of a plan that she and several other ranchers have crafted over several years at dozens of meetings with county planners.

“When we started this process five years ago, we came in on a higher plain. We were hoping to find a reasonable way to preserve our land from development,” she said. “This is starting to sound adversarial, and that’s unfortunate.”

The proposal is likely to become more controversial, however, and, at times, more adversarial.

One area of controversy, especially with the real estate and development community, is likely to come over transferable development rights.

Depending on a number of factors, including the unlikely scenario that everyone who can participate in the program actually does, anywhere from 891 to 1,635 transferable development rights could be added to the market.

TDRs, as they’re commonly called, allow people who own property in the backcountry to sever the development rights from their land and sell them to someone building in a less remote area. As currently written, the TDR program is limited in two ways: the only place a TDR can be created is in the Rural and Remote zone district, and the only place it can be used is in Aspen and its immediate vicinity.

TDRs are a linchpin of the agriculture committee’s proposal, because it allows ranchers to sell off development rights in exchange for preserving the land.

But Pitkin County Commissioner Shellie Harper has doubts about the viability of the TDR element of the proposal.

“We have to remember these ranches can be split into 35-acre lots and sold off,” she said. “A TDR sells for $300,000, while 35-acre lots in those areas of the county are selling from $800,000 to $1.3 million. I don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of this.”

The commissioners are also going to have to decide what is defined as agricultural land.

The agriculture committee settled on 70 acres as the minimum threshold for participation, although they considered setting the floor at 160 acres. There are 73 parcels of land in the county between 70 and 160 acres, 28 of which are currently used for agriculture, according to Ellen Sassano, the county’s long-range planner. Sixty-eight parcels are 160 acres or larger; 46 qualify for the tax breaks given for agricultural uses.

Asked why the committee thought the incentives should apply to all large undeveloped parcels, regardless of whether they’re used for ranching or farming, rancher Connie Harvey answered succinctly: “We didn’t see any good reason to prevent it.”

Another incentive written into the first draft is an exemption from the county’s growth management competition. Landowners who opt into the rural/agriculture zone overlay district, as it’s officially called, would be allowed to build one primary residence, up to 5,750 square feet, and one employee housing unit without having to go through the growth management competition that rates development proposals against one another and determines which will be allowed and which won’t.

“I see the building right of 5,750 square feet as the basis for creating 70-acre parcels. What I would like to see is the use of the TDR program as the primary incentive tool,” said Planning Commissioner Steve Whipple.

Little was settled at Tuesday’s meeting, which only lasted 90 minutes. Another meeting, perhaps a day-long retreat, is being scheduled.


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