Billionaire retail mogul Leslie Wexner and the federal Bureau of Land Management have surprised Pitkin County officials by proposing a land exchange that would give him 1,268 acres of BLM land at the base of Mount Sopris. In return, slightly more than 500 acres near a popular recreation area would be made public and preserved.
Pitkin County officials have been working closely with BLM officials on a regional management plan over the last year, but the federal agency has not until now indicated it wanted to sell the 1,268-acre parcel in the Crystal River Valley, according to a Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff memo dated April 7.
“We were under the impression that the normal BLM procedure is to identify disposal land in a plan first and then offer it pursuant to specific public process,” the county memo stated.
This is the not the first time Wexner has worked behind the scenes on a large land deal in the Crystal River Valley. In this instance, he has retained Denver-based public lands specialists Western Lands Group to pursue a federal land exchange. BLM officials reviewed the proposed land swap last summer, according to Andrew Wiessner of WLG, but the proposal was presented to Pitkin County only recently.
The federal legislative process for the land exchange could be complicated by the fact that Colorado Sen. Mark Udall’s brother Randy Udall stands to benefit — albeit only slightly — from the land exchange.
At the center of the proposal is a 1,240-acre rectangular parcel of BLM land that lies between two old ranches that Wexner now owns. Another sliver of BLM land — 28 acres — is next to Wexner’s ranch and is also part of the deal.
“Wexner wants to acquire the land to consolidate his ranch and will limit development to one 3,000-square-foot house (on the BLM parcel),” said Wiessner. “Then he wants to give the BLM the 513-acre Sutey Ranch, which the Aspen Valley Land Trust is desperate to acquire.”
The Sutey Ranch is next to 3,000 acres of BLM land in the popular Red Hill recreation area across Highway 82 from Carbondale.
When asked where the BLM stood on the proposed land swap, BLM spokesman David Boyd said Thursday, “We’re interested in it, but we don’t have an official position on it.”
Boyd also confirmed that while the larger, 1,240-acre BLM parcel is not on the BLM property disposal list, the smaller 28-acre parcel is. Until Friday, Western Lands Group had mistakenly represented to local officials that both parcels were on BLM’s disposal list. Wiessner now acknowledges the mistake but says the larger parcel meets the BLM’s criteria for disposal and that Carol Huey, a BLM realty specialist in Glenwood Springs, supports the land exchange.
On Tuesday, county officials will be asked to bless the land exchange.
“It is the custom of Congress that such exchanges are contingent on the support from Pitkin County for the exchange,” states the county memo.
But that support could be colored by past events.
Less than forthcoming
Wexner, 71, lives in Ohio but has long owned a 25,400-square-foot home set on a 65-acre bench on upper Red Mountain. The county assessor values the estate at $43 million. According to Forbes magazine, Wexner is worth $1.7 billion. He is chairman and CEO of Limited Brands, Inc., which owns Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and other retail brands.
In 2002, Wexner put the 2,000-acre Turnbull ranch in the Crystal River Valley under contract, but the Turnbull family at first did not disclose that to the county during a land-use process when they were given new development rights. Finding out late in the process that Wexner was the beneficiary of county approvals surprised the commissioners and created some ill will.
The county says Wexner paid $20 million for the Turnbull ranch. Wiessner says Wexner paid $18 million for it.
Then in 2006 it was announced that music industry executive Tommy Motolla, known for marrying pop star Mariah Carey when she was 18, bought the 1,400-acre Crystal Island Ranch from the Jelinek family for $47 million. That ranch is on the other side of the ridge of BLM land from the Turnbull ranch.
Motolla’s purchase was widely reported in the national media and Wexner did not correct the perception that Motolla was the owner. Now Wexner, through Wiessner, concedes he owns the Jelinek property. He’s named his holdings the “Two Shoes Ranch.”
And because Wexner now also owns the $6.5 million Sutey Ranch behind Red Hill, he wants to trade that for the BLM land sandwiched between his spreads.
The Sutey Ranch
Bringing the 513-acre Sutey Ranch under BLM control could prevent up to 250 homes being developed there under Garfield County zoning.
“This exchange would put AVLT’s highest priority parcel into public ownership and open it to public use,” wrote Aspen Valley Land Trust Director Martha Cochran in a letter to the county. “The Sutey Ranch is truly unique in our area for its pristine condition, natural beauty, quality of habitat, proximity to very popular public trails, location among high-value, fast-growing suburban development, amount of water and physical seclusion from any roads or development.”
The proposed land exchange also includes other federal and private land, such as 195 acres of BLM land in Eagle County and about 100 acres of Forest Service land in Gunnison County near Marble, which would allow a micro-hydro facility to be built and provide access to the Lilly Lake trail. The Red Hill Council, the Eagle County commissioners, Eagle Valley Land Trust and the town of Marble have all written letters in support of the deal.
A question, however, has been raised about the value of the BLM land Wexner wants.
Pitkin County officials believe Wexner paid $20 million and then $47 million for his combined 3,400 acres, or about $20,000 per acre (the property includes about 25 approved home sites). An appraisal put the value of the 1,268 acres of BLM land next to Wexner’s holdings at $4.2 million, or $3,300 an acre.
“Four million dollars seems like a really low appraisal if he just bought the ranch next door for $47 million,” said Al Beyers of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, which has reviewed, and endorsed, the deal because of Sutey Ranch. “It would be nice if the deal was a little sweeter.”
If the federal land is worth more than the Sutey Ranch, Wexner will give money to the BLM and Forest Service for potential land purchases in Pitkin County.
So far, Pitkin County has not embraced the land exchange.
“The Open Space board looked at the proposal at its past two regular meetings, where questions were raised and no resolution was obtained,” the April 7 memo from county open space states.
The Udall factor
One end of the rectangle of BLM land that Wexner wants connects to a remote section of U.S. Forest Service land on the flanks of Mount Sopris. The other end connects to a subdivision just off of Prince Creek Road where Randy Udall happens to live.
Through Western Lands Group, Wexner approached the homeowners in the subdivision about the land swap.
“The purveying sentiment in the subdivision was we didn’t think billionaires in the lower Crystal River Valley need to own any more property than they already have,” Udall said.
But the homeowners, including Udall, eventually signed a formal agreement with Wexner. Under the deal, the homeowners, and their guests, would still enjoy access to the former BLM land. Wexner would limit how much water he pumps from a private well near the subdivision, and a conservation easement would also be placed on the parcel and held by Pitkin County and AVLT.
“I have some mixed feelings about it, but the greater good seems to be getting the Sutey Ranch into the public domain,” Udall said of the deal.
In a letter sent to the county, the Prince Creek homeowners state that, “Two Shoes has agreed to request reference to our agreement in the Congressional legislation which would authorize the exchange.”
That would formally connect Randy Udall to the bill that his brother, as a U.S. senator from Colorado, would almost certainly need to endorse.
Randy Udall also wrote a letter in support of the land exchange. It is addressed “To Whom It May Concern” but has been given to county officials. The letter does not mention the BLM parcel in his backyard but only endorses the hydroelectric project in Marble.
Udall said he would not use his relationship with his brother to get the required legislation passed.
“This is not anything that I am going to lobby my brother about,” Udall said. “If it doesn’t go through, I will still have 1,200 acres of public land behind me. If it doesn’t happen, I’m happy.”