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Return of property rights is a tough pill to swallow

Tony Vagneur and Francesca Fender

Having been through years of land-use issues with Pitkin County, we found Naomi Havlen’s headline, “Dark days ahead for open space” (Aspen Times, April 28), an interesting choice of words. Our first thought was, “Bright days ahead for landowners getting back their property rights.” It’s further interesting that Havlen thinks that State Senate Bill 215 is somehow an “expansion” of property rights, when in reality it is no such thing.

Sometimes, we think people use convoluted routes of thinking to come up with scenarios that fit their versions of reality, to the detriment of the truth. Land such as the Drostes’, or other agricultural land in Pitkin County is not “open space” unless it has formally been so dedicated, which would imply some sort of binding agreement between a landowner and the county, associated with a realistic payment to the landowner providing the land for such open space.

True, Droste did make a deal with the town of Snowmass Village to keep some land as open space, for which he was paid a fair-market value. The rest of the land is the Drostes’ agricultural land, not “open space.” Land dedicated as open space is generally bought or otherwise traded for, not taken from the individual landowner by county or state regulation.

We don’t think we should get large landowners and bona fide ranchers mixed up, either. Take the Drostes out of the picture, rather recent landowners in the history of Pitkin County, and you will find that there are only a handful of large-ranch owners left in this county.

These are families who make their living from the land and have hung onto their ranches over the years, not because they thought they could cash in someday, but because they love the lifestyle that ranching affords and wanted to raise their families in such a fashion, hoping against hope that the ranch would continue on down through the generations. Cashing in was always an option, but not the preferred one.

Pitkin County could have given these ranchers motivation and encouragement to keep on ranching over the years, but they didn’t and haven’t. In fact, Pitkin County has made it unattractive for the Aspen Valley Land Trust or other conservation groups to buy land in this county, as the land-use codes are so strict as to make such purchases inadvisable and unneeded except in the most extreme cases.

It’s also hard to dangle tax advantages in front of ranchers who are getting paid about the same for their beef as they were back in 1974. And that is with beef prices reaching new highs, of late.

It’s not easy trying to ranch in a valley that does not understand how ranches must work to survive. Thanks to previous Pitkin County approvals, most ranches today are surrounded on all sides by subdivisions filled with people who think that since the rancher has so much land, he must not care if people use it as if it were their own. They walk their dogs on it; they lift their bikes over fences to get to ranch roads; throw their trash in the hayfields; they put pumps in the irrigation ditches to steal water for their own personal uses; the balloon companies look at them as landing areas; and the list goes on.

For the most part, developing ranches today in Pitkin County for housing does not realistically contribute to sprawl; it only continues the development that has been dictated by long-standing Pitkin County land-use philosophy. But it does seem unjust to let one guy sell his land for development and not the next guy.

Pulling the old saw about avalanche mitigation and protection of wildlife corridors out of your hip pocket at the last minute in the development of remaining land does not pertain to the issue. We think Mr. Ireland might be impressed with how well people would self-regulate if left to some creative solutions rather than being browbeaten by the land-use codes they have to face. (Besides, any number of real estate brokers in this county could keep the hazards straight, couldn’t they?)

In addition, it is no secret that dogs, at least in our estimation, rather than houses, are the true threats to wildlife in Pitkin County, clustered subdivision or not. Most agricultural land is not to be found in avalanche areas, and sometimes we wonder about the validity of flood-plain reasoning when we have so many upstream water-diversion tunnels. Like an affection-starved dog, Denver is more than eager to lap up every drop of our unused water.

We think the bottom line is that the state of Colorado recognizes that counties and local governments have been using legislation in unintended ways to accomplish local goals in a sporadic and self-serving way. This has created severe hardship on many owners of large tracts of property, most particularly ranchers in high-rent counties such as Pitkin.

The state is attempting to keep all laws equitable within its boundaries and to prevent counties from subverting that goal by creating and enforcing laws in a prejudicial way. It’s a tough pill to swallow for those who think otherwise.

Tony Vagneur, a former Pitkin County rancher, now resides in unincorporated Eagle County. Francesca Fender is a Pitkin County rancher.


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