Tree Farm Midvalley

This file photo shows land subject to the Tree Farm land use application, approved by Eagle County commissioners last year. The controversial approval for the large-scale residential and commercial development in the midvalley is part of the impetus behind a movement to annex a portion of Eagle County into Pitkin County.

Pitkin County officials generally pooh-poohed the idea of annexing the midvalley portion of Eagle County during a work session on Tuesday.

“It’s not that it’s a bad idea, but it’s an idea that’s 100 years too late,” Commissioner George Newman said.

“I have great hesitancy about this; I guess sometimes there are mistakes from the past that you can’t correct, or you can try and correct them but it’s not as if you’re starting from scratch,” Commissioner Rachel Richards said. 

“It would be a significant undertaking for the county to gear up and accomplish this large of an annexation,” County Manager Jon Peacock said.

A nonprofit organization, Our Valley Our Voice, has asked elected officials of both counties to place concurrent items on the fall ballot asking voters to approve the annexation. The group contends that the midvalley area that’s part of Eagle County, which includes El Jebel and Willits, is more of a fit for Pitkin County, not just geographically but in terms of the values of the people who live there. The county lines shouldn’t have been drawn in such a way, crossing over into different watershed areas, the group has said.

Ken Ransford, one of the group’s founders, a Basalt attorney who lives in Missouri Heights, did not attend Tuesday’s discussion on the issue. Commissioners said the large-scale Tree Farm project, a mix of residences and commercial space approved last year by Eagle County for El Jebel, appeared to be the group’s impetus for secession efforts. But Ransford has said the nonprofit is looking more broadly, and that the movement is not connected to a single development proposal.

Peacock pointed out that the process of annexation is difficult in itself. Our Valley Our Voice has suggested that the two counties could simply place the items on the ballot and leave it up to the voters of both counties, but there’s a lot more to it.

The county’s legal department conducted research and found that state law requires a petition, signed by a majority of the taxpaying voters in the area to be annexed, to be presented “to commissioners representing the county from which the territory is proposed to be stricken” — in this case, Eagle County. An estimated 8,335 people live in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County; it’s not clear how many of those are voters. Ransford has said that such a petition process would be extremely time-consuming and costly.

Second, annexation proponents would be required to deposit enough money for a survey of the boundaries of the area to be annexed. If an annexation effort were ultimately successful, the county taking in the new land — in this case, Pitkin County — could reimburse the proponents for the cost, Peacock said.

Third, county commissioners of both counties would be required to certify a ballot question pertaining to annexation. The question must be presented to county voters in a general election during an even-numbered year. “Both counties must vote in favor of the proposed annexation in order for the annexation to be successful,” a memorandum from Peacock to commissioners says.

Aside from the multifaceted annexation process, the county prepared a financial analysis that shows annexation would lead to a revenue-versus-expenses gap by taking in the new territory. Based on population estimates from 2016, Pitkin County would realize an extra $3.7 million in revenue and another $10 million in additional expenses if it were to annex the Eagle County’s midvalley area. 

The $6.3 million gap between revenue and expenses compares with $2.9 million in net costs estimated in 2000, when staff from both counties conducted an extensive analysis of the financial impacts of the proposed annexation, Peacock’s memo states.

The annexation area, as outlined by the organization, consists of 143 square miles of the southwest corner of Eagle County, and includes Basalt, Willits, El Jebel and rural areas north and east of the aforementioned developed communities along State Highway 82. There is no direct highway linking that area to the towns along Interstate 70 that are in the heart of Eagle County, such as Gypsum, Eagle, Edwards, Avon and Vail.

The memo says the $6.3 million gap could be covered a variety of ways, including a post-annexation countywide property tax or the creation of a special taxing district within the annexation area. There also is the option of not increasing taxes and reducing service-level expectations across the county so that costs match revenue produced from existing Pitkin County tax and fee rates, the memo adds.

“The funding gap is reflective of the fact that the area proposed for annexation would be 32 percent of Pitkin County’s new population, but would represent approximately 7 percent of the county’s post-annexation assessed value and 13 percent of estimated post-annexation sales tax collections,” the memo adds.

But the three commissioners attending Tuesday’s work session — Richards, Newman and Steve Child — didn’t appear to be interested in delving too far into the options. They pointed out that the first step in the process would be for proponents to start a petition process and take it to Eagle County commissioners.

Richards said she thinks the proponents underestimate the “love-hate relationship” that downvalley residents have with Aspen and Pitkin County. She said the effort may be driven by former Aspenites who prefer Pitkin County’s way of handling land-use issues and growth. 

If the annexation effort got to the point in which elections were held in the two counties, she said she envisions a lot of backlash from people who aren’t in tune with the Aspen or Pitkin County way of doing things — something that would be bad for the community.