Value a sticking point in Wexner land swap
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The value of the parcels in play in the proposed Wexner land exchange remained a stumbling block in negotiations between Pitkin County and the landowners, county Open Space and Trails Director Dale Will said Tuesday.
Talks between the county and landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner ended at an impasse Monday, when Abigail Wexner and the couple’s representatives met behind closed doors with county commissioners. The Wexners withdrew their request for county support of the proposed swap, for which they intend to seek congressional approval.
The Wexners were offering to turn the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, which they purchased for $6.5 million, over to the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 1,268 acres of BLM land abutting their Two Shoes Ranch. Sutey Ranch is located north of Carbondale and the Red Hill Recreation Area; Two Shoes is situated south of Carbondale, on the north flank of Mount Sopris.
The two sides spoke behind closed doors in an attempt to reach a deal acceptable to both sides; an appraisal of value was an issue on which they did not reach agreement, Will said.
“To me, one of the keys here is the whole valuation issue,” he said.
“It was a very big issue,” agreed Commissioner Michael Owsley.
County open space officials have long maintained that the value of the BLM land to the Wexners is far greater than a standard federal appraisal, done as part of an exchange, would conclude. Folding the strip of BLM land into Two Shoes Ranch makes the land more valuable to the Wexners than it would be as an independent parcel with difficult access if someone else was trying to acquire it, Will believes.
The Wexners have spent some $66 million on the other pieces of their Two Shoes Ranch, Owsley noted. For the owners of the surrounding Two Shoes land, the BLM strip down the middle would have significant value, he concurred.
The county asked that language be included in the congressional bill proposing the exchange that would require appraising the value of Two Shoes Ranch without the BLM land, and then determining the ranch’s value with the BLM acreage included. The approach would get at what Will called the “trophy ranch valuation” of the consolidated lands – about 5,600 acres in all.
“They said ‘no’ to that,” Will said.
The Wexners, in their latest proposal, offered to increase the amount of their ranch that would be protected from development via a conservation easement; Will questioned whether the couple would receive a tax write-off for placing land into conservation.
Nonetheless, the county also asked the Wexners if they would consider placing all of Two Shoes Ranch into conservation – a move that would accommodate existing development approvals but prevent any additional development in perpetuity, Will said. There are currently development approvals in place for 27 homes at Two Shoes, according to the county. At one point, the Wexners offered to eliminate rights for 10 homes, a riding arena and other agricultural buildings as part of a broader set of enticements to win county support for the trade.
The Wexners rejected placing a conservation easement over all of Two Shoes, Will said. They did offer to expand what they would conserve, but it was on lands identified as important wildlife habitat.
“It’s not land they’d be able to develop anyway,” he said.
The county also asked if the Wexners would allow public hunting on what is currently BLM land, according to Will. They declined, though they did propose an arrangement to allow hunting by invitation, he said.
The Wexners did offer additional funds for open space acquisition in Pitkin County, Will confirmed.
Attorney Gideon Kaufman, representing the Wexners, said the sticking points outlined by Will on Tuesday were “not an accurate reflection” of the discussion held with commissioners on Monday.
The Wexners’ representatives have not said what the couple will do next, but Will said the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program is willing to be a financial partner in preserving the Sutey Ranch, valued for wildlife and recreational attributes.
Owsley expressed hope that Pitkin County, along with a consortium of others, could preserve the Sutey property.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who had been a vocal proponent of reaching some sort of deal that would allow the county to support the land swap, told his colleagues Tuesday that he may speak out on the outcome of the negotiations.
“I’m hugely disappointed,” Hatfield said during Tuesday’s commissioner work session. “I personally believe that we could have done better.
“I feel that I want to make some kind of a comment at some juncture,” he said, calling the land exchange a “lost opportunity.”
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