Smuggler deal in the works
Aspen and Pitkin County are reportedly on the verge of closing a deal to purchase 170 acres on the face of Smuggler Mountain.The deal with longtime Smuggler owner George “Wilk” Wilkinson would preserve much of the mostly undeveloped mountain and settle the disputed ownership of the road that switchbacks up its face.If Wilkinson’s property winds up in public ownership, it will end one of the longest-running development disputes in Pitkin County history and secure a vital piece of recreational open space. Smuggler Mountain is the most prominent large, undeveloped parcel in the immediate Aspen area. Smuggler Mountain Road is used extensively by Aspenites for short hikes, mountain biking and access to the backcountry.Reports of the $15 million sale came yesterday from the listing brokers on the deal, Debra Goldstein and Shellie Roy of Frias Properties. Both real estate agents said the deal involves the city of Aspen and Pitkin County. They said the county secured its position as a buyer yesterday by depositing earnest money with Stewart Title of Aspen. Goldstein expects the deal to close in 45 to 60 days.Last month, the city announced it was preparing to issue up to $14.9 million in bonds to raise cash for open space purchases. At that time, city officials declined to say what they hoped to buy, fueling speculation that some or all of the money would go to purchase Smuggler. On Friday however, Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud insisted no deal had been reached. “We’ve signed no contracts on Smuggler Mountain,” she said.Pitkin County Attorney John Ely did confirm that negotiations with Wilkinson have been under way for some time. “We’ve been talking,” he said, “but I don’t have anything to share beyond that.” Ely said he did not have a written contract – which would be a public record – in hand.Goldstein expressed confidence that the deal would go through despite the reluctance of government officials to confirm that it exists.”I don’t really see a hiccup here,” she said.The nervousness expressed by city and county officials is understandable. Wilkinson has declined two offers worth millions since becoming Smuggler’s principal property owner in the mid-1980s. In 1994, the county offered him $9.4 million, according to Roy, a former county commissioner. In 2004, the city offered him $12 million for about 136 acres. Wilkinson balked at both offers – in 2004 he countered with an offer to sell for $21 million.Over the years, the county consistently refused to approve Wilkinson’s development plans, which at one time envisioned a neighborhood filled with high-end homes, as on Red Mountain. At one point, the county commissioners sent in bulldozers and razed a house Wilkinson had built on his land without a permit.But time and circumstance may have finally brought the two sides together. Last winter, the county downzoned much of Smuggler, sharply limiting its development potential. State lawmakers may have also helped bring the parties to the table with a 2004 law that bars cities from condemning property outside city limits in order to preserve it as open space. The city lobbied against the law, arguing it limited its options with Smuggler. Wilkinson is also reported to be quite ill, perhaps motivating him to close the deal.Goldstein and Roy both said Wilkinson actually held off on possible deals last month with private buyers in order to reach a deal that would preserve the land from development.”Wilk wanted to see this deal happen with the county – after all these years,” Goldstein said.Roy said Wilkinson knowingly risked losing at least two full-price offers (he listed it for $15 million) from the private sector in order to deal with the county. “Wilk, to my surprise, said ‘I’d like for the community to buy this land,'” Roy said.Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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