Pitkin County has reached an agreement to support the long-discussed, controversial midvalley land swap proposed by the Wexner family, it was announced on Friday.
The family has agreed to conserve additional land and fund trails for the county, in exchange for the commissioners’ support of a proposal to privatize more than 1,200 acres of federal land on the flanks of Mount Sopris adjacent to the Wexner family’s Two Shoes Ranch property. The county had withheld support for the federal land swap, while negotiating in closed-door meetings with the Wexners’ representatives over the last two years.
The federal swap proposal is currently being evaluated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Wexners are offering the feds the 557-acre Sutey Ranch, north of Carbondale and adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area, in exchange for the Sopris acreage. The BLM also would get a 112-acre parcel along Prince Creek Road allowing mountain bikers access to “the Crown” recreation area. Abigail and Leslie Wexner, owner of Limited Brands, also are offering $1.1 million to the BLM to help manage the properties.
The county-Wexner agreement is separate from the ongoing BLM review of the federal land exchange. The county would send a letter endorsing the swap, if the commissioners ratify the deal. The commissioners will hold a public hearing and “first reading” of an ordinance ratifying their agreement on Wednesday, Dec. 19. A second hearing is scheduled for Jan. 8. Four of the five commissioners are expected to support the deal, with chairman Michael Owsley dissenting.
It calls for the Wexners to place permanent conservation easements on two parcels on their land, known as “Potato Bill,” which state wildlife officials have identified as important winter range for deer, elk and big horn sheep. The easements would be managed by the Aspen Valley Land Trust.
The Wexners also agreed to give up development rights for 10 homes along Highway 133 and Prince Creek Road, totaling 50,000 square feet of home construction. They also pledge to move an adjacent building site of an indoor horse-riding arena to a less visually prominent site.
The family is hoping to acquire the BLM land because it splits the existing 3,944-acre Two Shoes property. The swap would make it one contiguous swath of private, Wexner-owned land below Sopris — totaling more than 8 square miles.
They have additionally promised $700,000 to Pitkin County, to be placed in an escrow account, to pay for property acquisitions and trail construction to improve public access to biking and hiking trails in the area. The county hopes to create a mile-long trail parallel to Prince Creek road that would access the Crown. The county hopes to acquire that trail corridor from other landowners in the area. If the county can’t do so, said county manager Jon Peacock, the money may be used for improvements to the Rio Grande Trail or other open space projects in the Crystal River Valley.
If Pitkin County comes around to supporting the Wexner swap, they will join a pro-swap coalition including the Aspen Valley Land Trust, Crystal River Caucus, Garfield County commissioners, Eagle County commissioners, Carbondale Town Council, Eagle Valley Land Trust, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Colorado Environmental Coalition and the Roaring Fork Audubon Society.
Gideon Kaufman, the attorney for the Wexners who negotiated the county agreement, said the family wanted support from Pitkin County and to unite the community in support of the swap, which has been subject to an at-times bitter local debate.
“I’m confident that it would have been approved [by the BLM without Pitkin County’s endorsement],” Kaufman said Friday. “Having Pitkin County support is a nice thing. But I think it’s more important to heal the wounds in the community. My clients are interested in being good neighbors and that’s why we’re moving forward.”
The Wexners are currently pursuing approval for the swap through an administrative BLM process that does not require approval of the U.S. Congress or local jurisdictions. Still, Peacock noted, the BLM wants to hear Pitkin County’s view of the swap and its endorsement can’t hurt the prospects of BLM approval.
“The BLM does listen to local government partners, so for us to say we’ve looked at it, and with these additional benefits we believe there is public benefit, I do think it’s meaningful,” Peacock said. “It removes one level of uncertainty.”
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who vocally supported the land swap while the rest of the board opposed it two years ago, said he was pleased to see the county come around and endorse it. While it would mean a net loss of public land for the county, Hatfield praised its benefit for the valley as a whole.
“Pitkin County is walking the talk about working regionally with other jurisdictions,” he said Friday, “and that’s an important component of our strategic plan.”
On the five-member county board, Owsley is expected to be the only commissioner opposed to the new deal.
“It’s just on the principle that public lands deserve to be preserved and not given away,” Owsley explained Friday. “Public lands on the flanks of Mount Sopris are not worth giving to the private sector.”
The swap, Owsley noted, would lead Pitkin County to lose roughly 2 square miles of public land. He characterized the deal as inconsistent with long-held local values.
“This is really horrible,” he said. “The commissioners in the past have had a long tradition of protecting public land, including spending $17 million on the Droste property [purchased by the county in 2010] and to let the public access it. In this case, just the opposite happened.”
Voters in Garfield County, which will gain public land in the deal, he noted, rejected a publicly funded open space program last month. The seeming inevitability of the BLM approving the swap, he argued, is not reason to support it.
“The tradition in Pitkin County is that we fight against the inevitable,” he said. “The growth patterns that have gone on in the rest of the country, we are going to fight against that. That’s been the modern credo in Pitkin County. I wasn’t elected to accept the inevitable. I was elected to change the inevitable, and it’s disappointing that the rest of the commissioners are going to roll over on this.”
He praised public lands as a great equalizer in the Aspen area, between billionaires like the Wexners and the hoi polloi living in government-subsidized housing.
“On public lands you can meet Leslie Wexner or John Doerr or Jeff Bezos and you are on equal ground,” he said. “You own as much of that land as they do.”