Pitkin County officials have continued private negotiations with representatives of the Wexner family regarding their proposed controversial land swap, as federal land officers proceed with an environmental assessment of the deal.
Since August, the board of Pitkin County commissioners has held five publicly noticed closed-door meetings on the swap. County officials have cited the clause in state open meeting laws that allows elected boards to meet in private executive sessions when “determining positions relative to matters that may be subject to negotiations; developing strategy for negotiations; and instructing negotiators.”
The closed-door sessions have been supplemented, according to county officials, by meetings between individual commissioners and representatives of the Wexners. County Manager Jon Peacock also has met with the Wexners’ local attorney, Gideon Kaufman.
The exchange, proposed by Limited Brands founder Leslie Wexner and his wife, Abigail, would privatize more than 1,200 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Pitkin County, on the flanks of Mount Sopris, and give it to the Wexners. The land surrounds the family’s “Two Shoes” ranch.
In exchange, the Wexners are offering the BLM property that includes mountain biking trails in the Prince Creek area and the 557-acre Sutey Ranch in Carbondale, touting a range of recreational benefits. They also are offering $1.1 million for management costs related to the land.
Many county officials have opposed the swap in the years since it was first aired, in part, because it would lead to a net loss of public land for Pitkin County. The Wexners’ representatives have argued that the Sutey plot is far more valuable and accessible than the land off Sopris, though smaller in acreage.
“I’m really concerned about it,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley, touting the value of public lands in the county. “The county is currently in negotiations with the Wexners, but I am just not in favor of [the exchange].”
The county open space and trails board has not been involved in ongoing negotiations on the swap.
That board voted to reject an earlier version of the trade, and the county commissioners failed to vote on it, before the Wexners withdrew a bid for congressional approval of the swap in 2010. It had garnered endorsements from other entities, including the Aspen Valley Land Trust, Garfield County and the town of Carbondale.
“When the Wexners decided to pull their request for our approval, I thought we were getting close to an agreement that would benefit all sides,” said Commissioner George Newman, who was hopeful the negotiations would produce an exchange with additional benefits for Pitkin County.
After dropping the congressional process, the Wexners later initiated the administrative land exchange process with the BLM, which is ongoing and does not require approval from Congress or local governing bodies. The initial step in that process, a BLM “feasibility study,” was completed earlier this year. The agency is now doing an environmental assessment (EA) for the exchange.
“The EA is underway, and we currently anticipate releasing a draft for public review later this fall — perhaps around the end of November,” BLM spokesman David Boyd said via email.
The assessment will be followed by a public comment period. Earlier this year, the county unsuccessfully lobbied the BLM to extend a public comment period on the proposal’s initial feasibility study, calling for more information from the agency to be disclosed to the public.