A $150,000 commitment from the Pitkin Open Space and Trails Department has helped complete a fundraising effort by the Aspen Valley Land Trust to acquire and manage a 25-acre parcel at the base of the highly popular, 3,100-acre Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA), which is owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The OST commitment, which still needs final approval from the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, comes even though Red Hill is located entirely in Garfield County, on the edge of Carbondale.
According to Dale Will, OST’s acquisitions and special projects director, an out-of-county expenditure, though not common for OST, has precedent.
“The legal test is whether the expenditure enhances the ‘health and well-being’ of Pitkin County residents,” Will said.
The parcel at the base of Red Hill has been on AVLT’s radar for a while.
The land, long owned by Arizona resident Ruth Pfleider, had been recently listed for $1.1 million.
“This is a project that we first made a run at five or six years ago with [Carbondale] and [Garfield] County as part of a broader ‘Gateway Park’ initiative, which eventually fell through,” said AVLT Executive Director Suzanne Stephens. “When the property was relisted last summer and the price reduced, the town, county, BLM and neighbors brought us to the table to discuss how we might acquire the land.
“It’s been a priority parcel for a long time — not because it’s pristine or magnificent wildlife habitat, but because it’s so visible from the highway and from town and holds the key to accessing the Red Hill Rec Area,” Stephens continued. “In addition, it is subject to a ’90s-era Red Hill PUD, which permits highway commercial development that could have really impacted the entrance to town. The risk of it being developed is now off the table.”
AVLT got the property for $825,000.
The deal closed in December.
But additional fundraising — to the tune of $370,000 — was needed to initiate the next phase of the management of the property, which includes moving the trailhead to the bottom of the hill to eliminate an unsafe quarter-mile access walk along County Road 107 from the park-and-ride lot on Highway 82 to the existing Red Hill trailhead, and creating a management fund to enable Carbondale to care for the parcel once ownership is transferred from ALVT in April.
To help with the fundraising effort, AVLT tapped into a longstanding tax paid by River Valley Ranch homeowners.
“When the River Valley Ranch subdivision was approved in 1996, it was by thin margin, and part of the developer’s offer to [Carbondale] to compensate for the development of agricultural land was to impose a .25-percent transfer fee on all lot sales in perpetuity — except on the affordable housing units — for the purpose of funding the purchase of public open space, conservation easements, development rights or similar conservation interests within seven miles of Carbondale,” said Matt Annabel, ALVT’s communications & outreach director. “AVLT has been the recipient of that restricted fund since 2003, when it merged with the Western Colorado Agricultural Heritage Fund, which was a nonprofit originally created to expend these funds.”
AVLT contributed $350,000 from that fund to the Red Hill fundraising effort.
Additional finds came from a $200,000 donation from the Ruth H. Brown Foundation, $100,000 from Abigail Wexner, $100,000 from the Alpenglow Foundation, $50,000 from the Town of Carbondale and more than $200,000 in individual donations from 300-plus community supporters.
In addition, in January, the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners approved a tentative $200,000 donation that is pending a formal vote in 2019.
“Garfield County is a fully invested partner on the project because it addresses a longstanding pedestrian-versus-vehicle conflicts along County Road 107,” Annabel said. “The project also expands options for future improvements to the county road. The county has been engaged and supportive from the very beginning. The BOCC was unanimously supportive at a public meeting earlier this year, where they informally committed $200,000 from their 2019 Conservation Fund. That money comes from the state lottery, a funding source that is up for reauthorization this year. It’s my understanding that the BOCC cannot formally vote on the distribution of those Conservation Fund dollars until 2019, but we have been given every indication they will follow through on their pledge.
“AVLT is covering the amount of the county’s pledge in the interim,” Annabel continued. “We always have contingency plans but wouldn’t want to wade into those at this stage.”
Stephens credits broad support from individuals and partner organizations throughout the valley as the key to the campaign’s success.
“It’s wonderful to have a project where both Garfield County and Pitkin County have an interest in contributing,” Stephens said. “That speaks to the fact that Red Hill is a resource that benefits residents from up and down our valley.”
AVLT will retain a permanent conservation easement on the property after it transfers ownership to Carbondale. Trail planning will commence shortly thereafter with a public-input process led by Carbondale.
Carbondale Town Manager Jay Harrington said he looks forward to the next phase of the project.
“This has been a wonderful partnership between AVLT and the Town of Carbondale and the town looks forward to being the long-term steward of this property,” Harrington said. “We are excited about engaging the community in the planning for trail and trailhead improvements.”
Regarding Pitkin County’s interest in contributing, Will said, “Red Hill is a unique resource in our valley. It’s accessible when many upvalley trails are not. With its early spring dry-out and year-round access, Red Hill is a favorite of many Pitkin County residents.”
Will said that, of the $106 million that Pitkin OST has spent in land and conservation easement acquisitions since its inception, a total of $4.8 million has been spent on projects that were totally outside Pitkin County’s boundaries.
Some $4.3 million of that total went to the acquisition of the 282-acre Glassier Open Space parcel, which is located in Eagle County. The balance of that acquisition came from Eagle County, the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and the Town of Basalt.
Pitkin OST spent $250,000 to help with the acquisition of the 95-acre Darien Conservation Easement in Gunnison County and another $250,000 on the 166-acre Nieslanik Conservation Easement in Garfield County.
According to David Boyd, public affairs specialist with the BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office, the Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area, which has 14 miles of marked trails, sees an estimated 55,000 user days each year — a user day being one person using the area on one day.