After more than two years of negotiations, Pitkin County commissioners voted 4-1 in a special meeting on Tuesday to support the controversial land swap proposed by the Wexner family, with only two members of the public speaking against the deal.
The county had previously withheld support for the federal land swap, currently under administrative review by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), due to concerns that the public wouldn’t benefit enough from the proposal. The deal would give the family ownership of more than 1,200 acres of federal land on the flanks of Mount Sopris that splits the Wexners’ Two Shoes Ranch property in exchange for the now-private 557-acre Sutey Ranch, which is adjacent to the popular Red Hill Recreation Area. The public would also get a 112-acre parcel along Prince Creek Road allowing mountain bikers access to “the Crown” recreation area.
“Land exchanges should never be taken lightly and I don’t think we did that here,” said Commissioner George Newman. The new agreement has significant public benefit, he said.
After the latest rounds of negotiations with Wexner representatives, the family has agreed to conserve additional land and fund trails for the county. Under the new agreement, the Wexners will give up development rights for 10 homes — or 50,000 square feet of potential building — along Highway 133 and Prince Creek Road. They will also institute conservation easements on about 370 acres of the existing Two Shoes Ranch, which serve as critical winter habitat for big horn sheep and elk. They have also offered $700,000 to Pitkin County, which would be placed in an escrow account, to pay for property acquisitions and trail construction to improve public access for biking and hiking in the area.
During Tuesday’s final review of the agreement, only two members of the public spoke against the deal. John Bender, self identified as a concerned citizen, briefly questioned the true value of the proposed exchange. Hawk Greenway, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board member, read a lengthy letter arguing against the swap. He noted that he was speaking not as a representative of the board, but as a concerned citizen of the community.
Greenway compared the Wexner exchange to the sale of Manhattan Island in 1626, when Native Americans traded the land to Europeans for the meager price of 60 Dutch guilders. The federally owned parcel in question here will only increase in value in the future and people will look back in awe of the small price paid for privatizing it, he said.
The agreement is also unfair, because the government is being held hostage by the owners, who threaten to develop the property and possibly shut down mountain biking near Prince Creek Road if the deal doesn’t go through, Greenway said. It is a classic shoot-the-puppy scenario, he said.
The agreement is also not a “one-off deal,” because privatizing the federally owned Sopris property will set a precedent for future wealthy families who want to purchase public lands, Greenway said.
There needs to be a debate in the community about what public lands are for and whether they can be purchased at all, he said.
“These lands belong to all of us here,” Greenway said.
Newman and commissioners Rachel Richards, Jack Hatfield and Rob Ittner all spoke in favor of the agreement, acknowledging that the process has been difficult.
Richards gave an emotional speech noting the personal struggle she has had deciding the issue. She has spent at least 100 hours contemplating the controversial swap, which has divided the community, she said. Ultimately, the Wexners would be a better steward of the Sopris property than the federal government, which doesn’t have the funds to manage the land properly, she said.
Commissioner Michael Owsley was the sole dissenting vote, standing behind his principal belief that people shouldn’t be able to purchase public lands.
“I don’t think that public lands should transition to private ownership,” Owsley said. “It’s just that simple.”
While the Sopris property would be temporarily safe in the hands of the Wexners, in the long run, the family could sell it to someone who wants to develop it, Owsley said. Private interests have a limited lifetime, while public interests go on in perpetuity, he said.
Hatfield, who was participating in his last meeting and is being replaced on the board by Steve Child, said that he was proud to finish his career as a commissioner with a vote on the agreement.
“It’s very meaningful for me on my last vote to vote yes,” he said of Tuesday’s decision.
The county’s endorsement will go to the BLM, which is currently reviewing the Wexner proposal.