The four candidates for an open seat on the board of Pitkin County commissioners offered differing perspectives on the Wexner land exchange at their first public forum Tuesday evening: for it, against it, and in the middle.
The four longtime local men will square off in a June 26 primary, narrowing the field to two. The general election is on Nov. 6.
The candidates are Snowmass rancher Steve Child, former Aspen fire chief Darryl Grob, Snowmass Village Town Councilman John Wilkinson, and John Young, a former Snowmass Village town manager and private developer.
Child endorsed the Wexner exchange, while Young said he is opposed. Grob and Wilkinson said they hadn’t reached conclusions on the controversial swap proposed by Limited Brands founder Leslie Wexner. It would make public the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, just outside Carbondale in Garfield County, in exchange for more than 1,200 acres of federal public land on the flanks of Mount Sopris in Pitkin County. The Bureau of Land Management is currently taking public comments on the proposal.
“I am totally in favor of the land exchange,” Child said, touting its wildlife and recreational benefits.
Child characterized Pitkin County’s lack of support for the swap as a “parochial battle” between downvalley and Aspen area officials.
“Pitkin County doesn’t like the Garfield County commissioners,” he said, later adding: “To me it doesn’t matter where the county line runs.”
Pitkin County, he noted, has gained more than nine square miles in public land through exchanges, and should be amenable to giving up some land for the greater valley benefit.
Young countered that he could not support it because the would-be privatized land could provide new access to Mount Sopris for later generations, though it is seldom-used today.
“I think this is a bad deal because I don’t want to give up the access to Sopris,” he said.
Grob encouraged the public outreach currently underway from the Bureau of Land Management, but said he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
“I really haven’t come to a conclusion. ... I think ultimately the proper decision will be made both for the land and for the community,” he said.
Wilkinson said he remains conflicted on the proposal, because Pitkin County would lose public land but the valley as a whole would gain desirable new recreation access on the Sutey Ranch.
“They’re throwing out a big carrot,” he said of the property adjacent to the popular Red Hill recreation area.
Steven Wickes, of the Aspen Community Foundation, attempted to spice up the forum during a question-and-answer period, by asking the candidates to name the worst decision made by the county commissioners in the last 20 years.
Wilkinson said the commissioners should have acted a decade sooner to improve the county airport terminal, which is currently in a master planning process.
Grob spoke about the complex challenges of providing workforce housing, and said he has hopes this summer’s city-county housing summit will bring effective policy action on providing it.
Young said he thought the commissioners should have responded more directly to local unemployment and the effects of the recession in recent years.
“I’ve got neighbors and friends who are dying on the vine,” he said.
Child called out the commissioners and the county open space department for buying the Saltonstall family ranch in Eagle County earlier this year, and said they ought to put a conservation easement on the property and sell it back to a rancher.
The county spent $1.86 million on the 145-acre parcel, and touted it as a future site for community farming and new trail access to the Crown recreation area. Child said the purchase was misguided, because the Crown is already overcrowded and the sparsely-populated area won’t support community farming.
“They’re talking about building a community garden that’s not near any community,” he said.
The forum was sponsored by the Aspen Democracy Initiative, and held on the balcony of BB’s Kitchen, with 30-plus locals in attendance.