Wexners drop request for Pitkin County support of land swap | AspenTimes.com

Wexners drop request for Pitkin County support of land swap

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner on Monday withdrew their request for Pitkin County’s support of a proposed Carbondale-area land swap, ending more than a year of discussions and negotiations that failed to produce a deal.

“At this point, we’re done,” said George Newman, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, after the second of two closed-door meetings with Abigail Wexner and her representatives.

The Wexners had proposed turning the 520-acre Sutey Ranch, located north of Carbondale and the Red Hill Recreation Area, over to the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 1,268 acres of BLM acreage abutting their Two Shoes Ranch at the base of Mount Sopris. The trade won endorsement from the town of Carbondale and Garfield County, along with a host of environmental groups and other organizations, including the Aspen Valley Land Trust and Red Hill mountain bikers.

County commissioners, however, called for a more equitable trade from the perspective of their constituents, as the BLM land is in Pitkin County, but Sutey Ranch is in Garfield County.

The county put forth a counterproposal, which the Wexners rejected, and the Wexners sweetened their offer several times, offering funds for open space and historic preservation, an endowment for the Sutey Ranch and offering to forego some of the development approvals at Two Shoes, among other enticements, to gain the county’s support.

At an April 20 meeting behind closed doors with commissioners, the Wexner team was given “an extensive list of additional concessions” the county wanted the Wexners to consider in order to secure county support for the trade, according to attorney Gideon Kaufman, representing the couple.

“We came back with a significant response, including additional funds for land acquisition in Pitkin County, an additional conservation easement for wildlife benefit in Pitkin County and increased opportunity for public hunting,” Kaufman said. The offers involved the BLM land targeted in the trade, he said.

“We were disappointed that this was still not enough for the Board of County Commissioners, and we have therefore formally withdrawn our request,” he said.

Newman said he had hoped commissioners would be given time to discuss the proposals presented Monday by the Wexner team.

“My sense was that this was their final offer and they didn’t want to continue discussions any further. That was a disappointment,” he said. “They wanted an immediate answer, and we were not prepared to do that.”

Four commissioners were present for the discussion; Commissioner Patti Kay-Clapper was absent.

Kaufman would not comment on the Wexners’ next move or what the ultimate fate of the Sutey property might be.

“They’re going to explore the options,” he said.

The Wexners purchased the Sutey Ranch for $6.5 million with the trade in mind. The Colorado Division of Wildlife supported its conservation for big-game wildlife habitat, particularly in the winter months, and mountain bikers hoped to secure a connection through the ranch to the existing Red Hill trail network.

County support had been considered key to seeking congressional approval of the land swap, though the Wexners could still pursue that route.

“It makes it much harder,” said Martha Cochran, executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust and a supporter of the exchange.

They could also propose the trade to the BLM through an administrative process.

Cochran called the impasse between commissioners and the Wexners “unfortunate.”

“I think it’s a loss for the valley,” she said.

“My hope all along was that the Pitkin County commissioners would step back and see the regional value of the land swap, realizing they needed to step back and look at the benefits Pitkin County could have as well,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt, who has attended several Pitkin County discussions about the exchange. “When you have opportunities like this, sometimes it’s important to just set aside county boundaries.”

Given its likely price tag, preservation of the Sutey Ranch by the AVLT is unlikely, Cochran said. If a Garfield County open space program ever comes to fruition, that could be an avenue to preserve the ranch, she noted.

Without a dedicated open space fund in Garfield County, though, Houpt said she doesn’t see the county putting funding toward conserving the Sutey property.

Sutey Ranch is conceivably open to real estate development. Conditions of the swap would have prevented any development, including oil and gas activity, on any of the acreage involved in the exchange.

The Wexners already own roughly 4,400 acres at Two Shoes, south of Carbondale. The ranch is split into two pieces; the land swap would have consolidated their landholdings and increased Two Shoes to about 5,600 acres.

Leslie Wexner, an Ohio billionaire, is the CEO and chairman of the board of the Limited Brands apparel corporation. His local holdings, along with Two Shoes Ranch, also include an Aspen-area home.