Water rights issue threatens big purchase by land trust | AspenTimes.com

Water rights issue threatens big purchase by land trust

Colorado’s drought has done everything from scorch lawns to curtail white-water rafting. Now it may derail a conservation group’s effort to preserve a 1,810-acre ranch.

Aspen Valley Land Trust failed last week to close on the purchase of a major portion of the Laurence Ranch in Missouri Heights. The organization was eyeing the deal as a way to establish itself as a major conservancy downvalley.

Now the land trust is scrambling just to “salvage” the deal, according to AVLT board of directors president Michael McVoy.

“We have it under contract until this week, then it’s no longer under contract,” he said. “There’s no doubt it was in jeopardy once we failed to close last week.”

AVLT was experimenting with a somewhat controversial approach to acquire the $7.5 million ranch. Instead of following its usual formula of raising funds to buy and preserve the property, it enlisted the help of a development firm and wealthy patron who would buy land.

The ranch is on a high mesa about 12 miles southeast of Glenwood Springs. It is mostly undeveloped and provides spectacular views of the high peaks in the distance. The family was forced to sell it for estate settlement.

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The property was divided into two sections for AVLT’s benefit. The land trust successfully closed on the purchase of a 480-acre portion and then flipped it to Snowmass Land Co., a Snowmass Village-based development firm. Snowmass Land Co. placed a conservation easement on 380 acres, and the two parties agreed that up to 26 luxury home lots could be developed on the remaining 100 acres.

The land trust and developer are preparing an application for review by Garfield County.

AVLT ran into problems buying the remaining 1,330 acres, known as the upper parcel. The plan was to buy the property and then immediately sell it to a buyer who would receive one development right. That buyer wanted to ranch the land and place a conservation easement on it, prohibiting further development. AVLT hasn’t released the prospective buyer’s name, at the person’s request.

McVoy said the deal soured right before closing last week over the issue of water rights. The buyer of the 1,330 acres was concerned about having adequate water to run a ranch.

The drought didn’t necessarily raise the issue, but the parties were a lot more conscious of water usage and division of rights because of the drought, McVoy said.

“It’s just about water ? there isn’t any,” said Martha Cochran, AVLT’s executive director.

Water attorneys for AVLT, Snowmass Land Co. and the buyer of the upper parcel met yesterday to try to work out an agreement. Even if progress is made, it will be difficult to close by this week’s deadline, said McVoy.

Cochran said last week that Monday was likely the day the deal would fly or fail. “I’m hopeful, and this morning I wasn’t,” she said Monday evening.

McVoy said he remains optimistic that AVLT can somehow prevent the ranch from being developed.

“The possibility exists, if this contract falls through, that we could bring another buyer to the table,” he said.

If the purchase of the upper parcel falls through and the lower 480 acres is a “stand-alone deal,” McVoy said he would consider it “a lukewarm success.”

“I would give ourselves a low passing grade,” he said.

If the upper parcel is purchased by a developer who carves it into ranchettes, McVoy said that would be a failure ? and exactly the reason the land trust became interested in the property.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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