Windstar land sale in Old Snowmass dashed dreams, raised suspicions
The sale of the Windstar property for $8.5 million in April sparked resentment that shows no signs of fading among scores of people who shared John Denver’s vision of environmental education and activism.
Conspiracy theories about the sale have been launched with the frequency of Denver’s pop hits in the 1970s on Facebook sites such as “Save the Windstar Foundation” and “Friends of John Denver.”
The more radical critics contend that the sale violated binding requirements that the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Windstar Land Conservancy had to care for the 957-acre rural parcel in Old Snowmass.
Others contend that the sale might not have been illegal but it was part of a well-orchestrated series of events that betray the spirit of what Denver envisioned.
Denver’s brother, Ron Deutschendorf Sr., said the sale is viewed suspiciously by some because it was part of a one-two punch that followed the surprise dissolution of the Windstar Foundation in October. As chairman of the board of trustees, Deutschendorf was on the losing end of a board vote to dissolve the foundation. Some key players in that decision also hold board positions on the Windstar Land Conservancy, which owned a half interest in the Windstar property along with the Rocky Mountain Institute.
The dissolution of the foundation that Denver founded in the mid-1970s has been justified as “something John wanted” by some of the decision makers, Deutschendorf said.
“That’s an absolute lie,” he said. “John never intended to do that.”
He said his brother would have sold his prize possession, a Learjet, to raise money to ensure Windstar’s survival. The dissolution effort “was a complete blindside to me,” Deutschendorf said.
The sale of the Windstar property stings because Denver acquired it with the intention of preserving it forever as a wildlife sanctuary and open space. The way the sale was handled sparked concerns about Denver’s vision for the land, even though 927 of the 957 acres have a conservation easement that prohibits development.
“I think it’s been handled poorly,” Deutschendorf said of the sale. He believes that the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Windstar Land Conservancy should have designated permanent parking to ensure people can use the 927 acres of open space.
The parking is on 30 acres that isn’t encumbered by a conservation easement. There is no guarantee that parking will be provided by the new owner after the institute must vacate an office building on the site in two years.
Unlike other critics, Deutschendorf doesn’t fault the institute for pursuing the sale. The institute failed to earn approval from Pitkin County in the mid-2000s for an office building and affordable housing on the site. Its proposal for a building on the 30 acres faced stiff opposition from neighbors.
“I knew they were going to have to do something,” Deutschendorf said. “I knew they were going to have to be bought out.”
He said he is disappointed that the Windstar Foundation didn’t get a chance to buy out the Rocky Mountain Institute’s interest in the property. Deutschendorf said he learned about the effort to dissolve the Windstar Foundation just two days before a scheduled vote by the board last fall. He managed to stall the decision for 30 days but couldn’t turn the board.
“Who knows what I would have been able to accomplish” if Windstar wasn’t disbanded and given a chance to raise funds to buy out the institute, he said.
Deutschendorf said he understands that the Rocky Mountain Institute needs funds to build a state-of-the-art facility in Basalt that will showcase energy efficiency. He is confident that the organization will put its half of the sale proceeds to good use.
He said he will keep a close eye on how the Windstar Land Conservancy spends its half. The conservancy — jointly formed by the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Windstar Foundation in 1996 to care for the Windstar property — has set up a special fund through the Aspen Community Foundation to give grants to various nonprofits on missions that John Denver allegedly would support.
Deutschendorf said people who didn’t know his brother will make decisions on how to use the funds.
“It really upsets me when people say they know what John would support,” he said.
J.P. McDaniel, of Littleton, a volunteer with the Windstar Foundation throughout the 1980s, agrees that a full accounting of the sale proceeds by the Windstar Land Conservancy must be provided. She also seeks answers about the sale: Why did it occur so quickly and quietly once a buyer was found? Did the sellers violate terms of ownership by selling the land? Why weren’t Windstar Foundation backers given a chance to buy the land?
“Maybe (the sale) is legal, but it seems unethical,” McDaniel said.
Kevin Ward, who lives next to the Windstar property, has tried to spur Pitkin County officials into looking into the legality of the sale. He contends that if the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Windstar Land Conservancy weren’t going to carry out their mission to care for the land, they had to turn the property over to Pitkin County rather than pursue a sale.
Marty Pickett, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s executive director and legal counsel, wrote a letter to Pitkin County addressing allegations Ward raised at a meeting of the Open Space and Trails board of directors.
Pickett said that when the Rocky Mountain Institute signed a contract to buy half of the Windstar property from the National Wildlife Foundation, it was envisioned that a charitable trust would be created to handle the Windstar land preservation. There was a provision in the agreement that said if that trust became insolvent, the land would be turned over to the Aspen Valley Land Trust. The idea was to ensure that it would be conserved and undeveloped in perpetuity, Pickett wrote to the county.
The trust was never created. Instead, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Windstar created the Windstar Land Conservancy after the institute bought half the property. The conservancy granted a conservation easement on 927 acres. Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the Aspen Valley Land Trust hold the easement.
Creating the conservancy and granting the conservation easement was judged to be a better way to preserve the land, according to Pickett. She insisted that a sale isn’t illegal.
“The conservation easement not only does not prohibit but expressly contemplates a transfer of the Windstar property in several of its provisions,” Pickett wrote.
She also contended that the splitting of the sale proceeds between the Rocky Mountain Institute and a special fund established at the Aspen Community Foundation was established in several internal agreements among the institute, the Windstar Land Conservancy and the Windstar Foundation before its dissolution.
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