Value of public land at center of Pitkin County debate | AspenTimes.com

Value of public land at center of Pitkin County debate

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY – In the land of astronomical land prices that is the Roaring Fork Valley, a billionaire’s proposal to exchange one piece of the terra firma for another has triggered debate about the true value of public open spaces.

It’s not just about money, though plenty has been spent. It’s also about access, recreation, land conservation and the privatization of public property. Standing firmly in the controversy’s cross hairs is Pitkin County, which has been asked to endorse a land swap that the U.S. Congress must ultimately approve or deny.

Both proponents and opponents of the swap have voiced persuasive arguments in an increasingly complex debate over a seemingly straightforward proposal: Landowner Leslie Wexner wants to trade the 513-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale for 1,268 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property on the north flank of Mount Sopris, also near Carbondale. He purchased the Sutey Ranch (pronounced shoo-tee) for $6.5 million with the trade in mind, hoping to add the BLM acreage to his adjacent Two Shoes Ranch landholdings, on which he has already spent some $66 million. If the trade goes forward, then Wexner’s property at the base of Sopris would increase from roughly 4,400 acres to 5,600.

Acre for acre, the trade doesn’t stack up, but the size of the parcels has not been the sticking point. Rather, detractors of the deal say the trade is not a financially fair one, while supporters tout the swap as a win-win that protects both parcels.

The town of Carbondale, Garfield County, Aspen Valley Land Trust and Red Hill Council are among the entities that have already endorsed the swap. The Sutey Ranch is located in Garfield County, while the BLM parcel is in Pitkin County.

Located north of the maze of mountain biking trails on Red Hill, which is just off Highway 82 near the Highway 133 intersection, the Sutey property is eagerly viewed by the mountain biking community as a new access point to Red Hill, with opportunities for an easier ride for novice bikers than the demanding routes off the sole existing Red Hill access.

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Recreational use, though, isn’t guaranteed. If the Sutey Ranch comes under the BLM’s purview, a management plan will determine its uses and protections. A prohibition on motorized uses, however, is already a term of the proposed swap – a condition pushed by Pitkin County.

The scenic ranch, which comes with water rights, is used by elk and deer, and the Colorado Division of Wildlife would like it protected for that reason, said John Groves, district wildlife manager in Carbondale, during a visit to the property last spring. “We would like to keep it intact, pretty much recreation-free,” he said, adding, “definitely in wintertime.”

Both properties would be protected from any development, including oil and gas exploration and extraction, under the terms of the trade, and conserved without spending a dime of public money. That’s a big plus, concede players on both sides of the debate.

“We’re trying to figure out what Pitkin County’s objection is,” said Martha Cochran, executive director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust. “The question is, what’s the loss – a piece of property [the BLM land] that nobody knew was there and probably wouldn’t go to if they could?”

The Sutey Ranch had long been a priority for protection from the AVLT’s perspective, she said.

“I think the real issue is one of access and utility,” said Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig, a proponent of the trade.

He has skied on the BLM parcel, after accessing it from a friend’s property, but for the general public, access to the rugged terrain is limited to about a half-mile-wide strip of land on the southern end that borders national forest at the base of Mount Sopris. It’s a steep, but not impossible hike, and some hunters, at least, find their way onto the the juniper- and scrub oak-covered parcel.

For Hassig, it boils down to a piece of land that few people use, versus one with inviting recreational prospects and easy access off Garfield County Road 112.

“Undoubtedly, [the BLM land] serves wildlife purposes,” he added. “I would question whether those wildlife purposes are compromised if it changes hands.”

For Wexner, CEO and chairman of the board of the Limited Brands apparel corporation, the trade is fueled by two goals, according to Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group, which is helping broker the deal.

Wexner wants to make certain the land isn’t leased for oil and gas exploration – a fate that has befallen plenty of BLM land in Colorado, and he wants to consolidate his landholdings, currently split by the BLM parcel, Wiessner said.

It’s that consolidation – and what 5,600 acres at the base of Sopris is really worth, that has tripped up some members of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board. The five-member board voted unanimously to recommend that county commissioners formally oppose the trade. Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the swap Nov. 10 in executive session. Wexner’s representatives hope to get the proposed swap introduced in Congress this fall or early next year, with the expectation that Congress may act on it by next fall.

About one quarter of Wexner’s existing landholdings have been placed under a conservation easement and can’t be developed. The BLM land, on which he already holds grazing rights, would be similarly restricted. Elsewhere on Two Shoes, he has right to build 28 homes.

The issue of value is a troubling one, according to Dale Will, director of the county open space program. Large tracts of private land in the West have become hugely valuable, he said, citing “the Ted Turner phenomenon” in reference to the media/sports mogul who has amassed some 2 million acres of ranch land.

“My opinion is, we are not looking at a balanced proposal here,” Will told the Open Space and Trails Board.

Board members have expressed a desire to preserve the Sutey Ranch, but several question whether gaining the $6.5 million property is a fair trade for a piece of public land that they believe becomes far more valuable to Wexner by virtue of his landholdings on either side of it. It’s the difference between the potential for an exclusive enclave of homes that is entirely private versus one with a strip of public property running up the middle, said board member Tim McFlynn, who suspects the trade would significantly increase the value of Wexner’s holdings.

Wiessner disputes the notion that acquisition of the BLM parcel adds to the value of the already approved lots at Two Shoes. The two pieces of the ranch would be split by protected lands and no paved road could connect the two, he said.

A federal appraisal would be done as part of the trade, if Congress approves the swap, but Will expressed doubt that the appraisal would take into account the value of “assemblage” – the added value he suggested the strip of BLM land gains by virtue of the adjacent acreage Wexner has amassed around it.

If the feds determine the BLM land is worth more, he would be required to pay the difference into a federal fund for land acquisition, according to Wiessner. Wexner would eat the difference if the Sutey Ranch was appraised at a higher value.

Franz Froelicher, open space board member, dislikes the idea of an appraisal after the trade is approved.

“It puts the cart before the horse in a big way,” he said. “Nobody on the board felt there was enough value on the table for this exchange.”

For some open space board members, the fact that the Sutey Ranch isn’t even in Pitkin County was a troubling issue, though Wexner’s representatives recently sweetened the deal to the tune of a $1 million cash donation – almost all of it to be spent on land acquisition or historic preservation in Pitkin County.

At this point Garfield County has no open space fund to preserve the Sutey Ranch, absent the proposed swap. The land is currently zoned for one house per every two acres. Hawk Greenway, chairman of the Pitkin County open space board, thinks Sutey may become the sacrificial lamb that spurs Garfield County to start an open space program.

For Greenway, however, the real issue is not the Sutey Ranch, which has long been private property, but the fate of the BLM land, currently in the public’s hands.

“The story is not the Sutey – the story is the privatization of public land,” he said.

The BLM land is “absolutely gorgeous,” Greenway contends. “There’s not a spot on it that you don’t have this incredible sense that Mount Sopris is right there, in your lap.”

Among the goals of the county’s open space program is to preserve and enhance access to public lands, Greenway said. There is private land to the north of the BLM parcel where the county might eventually secure an easier public access to the parcel than what currently exists, he added.

“It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there will be public access. There’s no sense closing the door to that possibility,” Greenway said.

janet@aspentimes.com