Tree farm land swap challenged in 53 suits
About 40 people are contending in federal court that their property was unlawfully snatched from them by Pitkin County in 1994 and traded as part of the Mount Sopris Tree Farm deal.
The alleged property owners have filed 53 cases in U.S. District Court in Denver to try to regain title to the properties. All the disputes involve patented mining claims scattered in the mountains around Aspen.
The cases – known as quiet title actions – allege that Pitkin County didn’t own the mining claims and, therefore, couldn’t legally use them in a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service.
Pitkin County teamed with Eagle County in 1994 to acquire the tree farm in El Jebel from the feds. Pitkin County contributed 267 patented mining claims totaling 1,258 acres to the swap. The majority of those claims are on the back of Aspen Mountain, but there were also some around Woody Creek and Lenado, Conundrum Creek and Independence. Eagle County added 49 acres to the tree farm exchange. The title to lands contributed aren’t in question.
The quiet title actions allege that the processes that Pitkin County used to acquire ownership of 67 of the mining claims didn’t meet legal requirements. Those processes often occurred in the early part of the 20th century – after miners abandoned their claims and stopped paying taxes.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Eagle County Administrator Jack Ingstad said the cases involve nothing more than allegations at this point. Therefore, he said, he wouldn’t speculate on whether the counties will have to take steps to remedy the deal with the federal government.
Ingstad said the quiet title actions won’t affect the counties’ ownership of about 125 acres in the tree farm – land slated for use as a community center and ball fields, as well as preservation of open space.
Feds had questions
The ownership disputes came as little surprise to federal officials.
Al Grimshaw, a lands acquisition expert with the Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District, said the agency had considered some county-held mining claims for exchange in the late 1970s, but decided the title was “too shaky” to proceed with a deal.
Some of those same claims were accepted by the Forest Service in the tree farm exchange. Why? “Congress told us to,” explained Grimshaw.
The tree farm exchange was approved by an act of U.S. Congress. The counties hired lobbyists to help push through the special legislation.
Grimshaw said patented mining claims often have “clouds” on ownership. They typically changed hands numerous times and were divided into multiple interests. Tracking ownership can be extremely difficult.
“This is expected,” he said. “We knew we were going to have some legal challenges filed. It was a question of how many would be filed.”
When asked if it was fortunate for the Forest Service that ownership was disputed on only 62 of the 267 mining claims involved in the land trade, Grimshaw replied “probably.”
“It is going to be a tremendous amount of work,” he said. “It could be worse.”
Forest Service personnel are meeting with their lawyers in February to determine how to respond to the quiet title actions.
County isn’t off hook
The counties aren’t off the hook for the lands used in the exchange, particularly Pitkin County.
The Congressional act that cleared the way for the exchange says that the counties are liable to cover 50 percent of the feds’ legal expenses over $240,000 in defending quiet title actions.
In addition, the counties must provide cash or land of equal fair market value for any property that is found to belong to someone else. One source familiar with patented mining claim appraisals said property eligible for the county’s transfer of development rights program – which is designed to prevent development in the backcountry – is selling for up to $200,000. If the 62 mining claims are found to belong to other parties, squaring the deal with the federal government could get expensive.
The Congressional act included provisions to make sure property owners who were affected by the land swap couldn’t get ignored by big government. To make sure any disputes were handled speedily, the act said private title claims had to be filed within six years after a list of affected mining claims was published.
Aspen attorney Gary Wright filed 51 quiet title actions involving about 35 people who claim to own about 60 of the patented mining claims that Pitkin County swapped. Wright filed the actions on Nov. 30, 2000, right at the deadline.
Two other quiet title actions involving different alleged owners and mining claims were filed by a Denver law firm.
Wright declined comment, noting he couldn’t really add to the allegations he laid out in the cases.
The federal government hasn’t replied to any of the quiet title actions yet because it hasn’t formally been served with notice of the filings. Wright said service will take place before a deadline expires in March.
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