Wilkinson, Pitco hold peace talks
An avalanche of letters from a homeowners association has failed to dislodge Wilk Wilkinson and a number of vehicles from the parking lot at the base of Smuggler Mountain.
Though Pitkin County claims to own the lot, the county commissioners have held back a September lawsuit aimed at clearing up the county’s title to the lot and the surrounding area. The lawsuit has been replaced with discussions between Wilkinson and the county, which have extended to not only the parking lot, but the disposition of all of Wilkinson’s land holdings on Smuggler Mountain.
Gerald Wendel, president of the Silverlode Homeowners Association, has fired off numerous letters to various commissioners since last November. The letters complain that the vehicles are “eyesores” and that one “looks like a leftover from a Grateful Dead concert.” He notes that Wilkinson charges people $300 per month to park full time in the lot.
Wilkinson has claimed that he owns the lot by virtue of what he calls “tunnel rights,” a provision of mining law which gives him the right to use the surface area within a 500-foot circle around a mine portal. He has said he owns the Smuggler Tunnel, which formerly surfaced near the intersection of Park Circle and Centennial Road. The county disputes his claim.
“The county and I are talking about how to solve it without litigation,” he said. In 1989, Wilkinson said, he received a court order which allows him to park vehicles in the lot. That ruling resulted from a case he filed against the county, he said.
The lot is a popular parking place for people recreating on Smuggler Mountain Road, but in the past has been crowded with a permanent assortment of vans and old buses.
Wilkinson said he and county officials are discussing the future use of all of his Smuggler property, with the parking lot playing only a small part. But his discussions with the county are confidential.
“I’m not really at liberty to discuss it,” he said. “The dialog is going back and forth, so hopefully, we’ll see what transpires,” he said.
Wilkinson said he’s the largest landowner with property adjacent to Aspen’s city limits. Though he has owned his Smuggler property since 1985, his attempts to develop it have mired down in an endless series of disputes and lawsuits with the county.
“I’m still just, as always, asking to be able to use my property,” he said.
County Commissioner Dorothea Farris confirmed that discussions have replaced the county’s lawsuit for now, and that the discussions are on the fate of all Wilkinson’s Smuggler holdings, not just the parking lot.
Talks are taking place with the assistance of an intermediary, Farris said. Jim Kent, of James Kent Associates, a Basalt firm, is mediating the discussions.
Commissioners thought a mediator would be a good idea, Farris said, because years of lawsuits and mistrust have preceded these discussions. Kent specializes in discussions between governments and individuals, she said. She said they’ve opened up the talks to try to establish areas of common interest.
“We’re asking him what he wants,” Farris said. “How much he needs, money-wise, and what his dreams are for [the property].” But she said Pitkin County is not considering buying the property outright. “We don’t have any money,” she lamented.
“Maybe the county can buy it, or maybe they can give up a little bit of development rights,” Wilkinson said.
“I think the public’s had a free ride since 1985,” he continued. He contends it has been the county’s agenda to keep Smuggler Mountain as open space. But under takings laws, if a government refuses a valid development application, it must, after a legal process, purchase the property.
“The community says, `we really want that land open and undeveloped. That’s the back yard of Aspen,’ ” Farris said. But, if somebody owns it, either the owner donates it, or the government buys it, she said.
“So, what I think we’re looking for is a fair way to approach Wilk,” she continued.
The county has elected not to tow the vehicles in the parking lot while discussions are in progress.
“We thought while we were trying to work on negotiations, we wouldn’t press the issue,” she said. “If this can’t be resolved, we’ll follow through.”
But Commissioner Mick Ireland has a different idea of fairness. He said he thinks the county should proceed with the lawsuit.
“You don’t defer compliance until other arrangements are made,” Ireland said. “We don’t do that for people who don’t own large amounts of land.
“I think the homeowners are right,” Ireland said, “but the board has proceeded cautiously.”
While the vehicles remain in the lot, Farris said, the county has made certain that no one is living in them, at least for the time being. She said the health hazard represented by people living in the vehicles has been eliminated. Also, Wilkinson said he has made an effort to remove four vehicles which he had not authorized to park in the lot but have been left there for long periods.
Reacting to the complaints from Wendel, Wilkinson said the nearby Silverlode homeowners should should thank him for a past favor, rather than trying to force him off the parking lot.
“Gerald doesn’t know that I released those road easements so they could build all those houses,” Wilkinson said. He said he legally rerouted road easements he owned, which once passed through the Silverlode subdivision, thus removing legal encumbrances on the lots and freeing the owners to build houses there.
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