Smuggler debate: No condemnation
Aspen refused to condemn open space on Smuggler Mountain when it had the chance, but at least two City Council members don’t regret that decision.This week, the council concluded negotiations with Smuggler landowner George “Wilk” Wilkinson have failed and decided to call off further attempts to buy his property.Wilkinson recently turned down $12 million for his land on the mountain on Aspen’s northeast flank, according to the city. An appraisal obtained by the city last year put the property’s value at $8.1 million.City Attorney John Worcester said the council was never asked to make a decision to move forward with condemnation, but that option got plenty of debate behind closed doors, council members said yesterday.Council members Rachel Richards and Terry Paulson both confirmed they were willing to condemn Wilkinson’s 136 acres on Smuggler, but said their colleagues were not.”I think it’s fair to say the council never reached a majority who wanted to pursue condemnation,” Richards said.Now, the council can’t take that route even if it wanted to. State legislation, aimed at halting an open space condemnation in Telluride, popped up unexpectedly this spring and effectively eliminated condemnation of Smuggler by the city as an option.”Now we’re SOL, to put it mildly,” Paulson said. “We had a chance. If nothing else, [condemnation] gets people to the table.””If everybody knew that power might be taken away, people might have reacted differently,” Richards agreed. “Who knows?”Hindsight is 20/20.”Mayor Helen Klanderud came out against condemning Wilkinson’s land in the 2001 mayoral race, while Richards, her opponent, was willing to keep that option open.Klanderud hasn’t changed her mind. “I still believe I would rather negotiate a deal than condemn when it comes to open space. I wouldn’t change my position on that,” she said.It taints a negotiation, Klanderud said, if a private landowner knows a government will simply condemn what it fails to acquire through friendlier means.In a condemnation proceeding, a government can acquire property from an unwilling seller for a price established by a three-person jury.”It would have been enormously expensive,” said Councilman Tim Semrau, who opposed condemning the land. “There was a huge risk involved.”The city could have spent millions in attorney fees getting through the condemnation process, he said. Then, if the price established in court was unacceptably high, the city would have to pick up Wilkinson’s legal fees in order to walk away from the purchase.”It’s full of risks,” Richards conceded. “Who knows? If we’d gone down that path, it might have been disastrous.”Condemnation, though, was a way to create a level playing field with a landowner who had a vastly different opinion about the property’s value, Richards added.”It was pretty clear Wilk was not an easy person to negotiate with. He’s just all over the map,” Paulson said.Wilkinson’s latest counteroffer to the city would have cost Aspen and Pitkin County $21 million for some of his land.The council and Pitkin County commissioners had discussed sharing in the cost of purchasing Wilkinson’s land as open space, but some members of the county’s open space and trails board reportedly opposed condemnation.Though the new state law prohibits a municipality from condemning land outside its borders for open space, Pitkin County could still condemn Wilkinson’s property. The new law would bar the city from contributing to the purchase, though.The county probably doesn’t have the financial ability to buy the land without the city’s help, said Commissioner Mick Ireland. But, Ireland said he’d support acquiring Wilkinson’s land through condemnation.”I always thought that would be appropriate, given its value and the adverse consequences of development,” he said.For the time being, council members say the city will focus on other open space opportunities, including private land on Smuggler that doesn’t belong to Wilkinson.Telluride, meanwhile, is expected to challenge the constitutionality of the new law on extraterritorial condemnation, and it may eventually be overturned.Pitkin County’s land-use approval process, which has thwarted Wilkinson’s past attempts to develop Smuggler, may preserve the mountain as de facto open space for the foreseeable future, Semrau added.”I don’t believe they will allow development on Smuggler that is distasteful to the rest of us,” he said. “In a certain way, we have public use of Smuggler without spending any money. That’s not so bad.”Smuggler has been identified as an open space priority in the community, both for its visual appeal and because the dirt road that winds up the mountain and into the Hunter Creek Valley is popular with recreationists.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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