Saturday, January 9, 2010

Colorado Rancher to Get BLM Land

New deal on table for Sutey Ranch land swap
Pitkin County commissioners to review proposal next week
Janet Urquhart
Aspen Correspondent
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

ASPN, Colorado — A counter offer to the proposed Sutey Ranch-BLM land swap — one that preserves public access to north flank of Mount Sopris near Carbondale — was unveiled Thursday by Pitkin County's open space director.

Dale Will outlined the proposal in a memo to county commissioners, who are scheduled to take up the controversial land trade again on Tuesday.

“The commissioners directed me to come up with something I could recommend they approve,” Will said.

Under the new proposal, billionaire retailer Leslie Wexner would acquire 873 acres of Bureau of Land Management property at the base of Sopris, allowing him to consolidate his Two Shoes Ranch landholdings into a contiguous 4,274-acre piece, in return for turning the 520-acre Sutey Ranch over to the BLM. The Sutey property is located north of the Red Hill Recreation Area near Carbondale, in Garfield County.

The BLM land that would be folded into the Two Shoes Ranch would be scaled back from the 1,268 acres Wexner originally sought, allowing creation of the approximately 971-acre Potato Bill Creek Open Space, which would preserve public access to federal lands at the base of Sopris, to the south of Wexner's landholdings. The newly created open space would include 395 acres of BLM land combined with 536 “remote” acres of the existing Two Shoes Ranch, plus a 40-acre parcel the county previously acquired from the BLM, Will explained.

The Potato Bill Creek Open Space would encompass Potato Bill Creek — “a scenic, albeit rugged, riparian area,” said Will in his memo. It would provide public access below the Nettle Creek couloir — a route down the north flank of Sopris that has a following among backcountry skiers, Will noted. It offers the most gradual of available routes down the mountain, to the confluence of Thompson Creek and the Crystal River. There, the county has identified the potential for a river crossing on existing county open space, connecting the route to Highway 133.

“This corridor was identified after careful review of aerial photographs and topographic information that reveal that this would enhance dispersed recreational access for hikers, hunters, mountaineers and other backcountry enthusiasts,” Will wrote.

In addition, a 7-acre parcel used by mountain bikers along Prince Creek Road would be conveyed as open space and a trail on the southern edge of Two Shoes Ranch would be allowed to remain in its current location.

The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Board, meeting in El Jebel Thursday, voiced unanimous support for the alternative proposal after voting unanimously last November to recommend county commissioners reject the swap as proposed by Wexner through his representatives. The commissioners have discussed the swap on several occasions since then, always behind closed doors.

A public discussion is scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. in the commissioners' meeting room, at which time both Will and Wexner's representatives — Andy Wiessner of Western Land Group and attorney Gideon Kaufman — are expected to make presentations.

Kaufman said he learned Thursday that a new proposal was on the table, but said he had not had a chance to review it and could not comment on it.

Chief among the Open Space Board's previous objections to the swap was the value the addition of the BLM land would bring to Wexner's existing Two Shoes Ranch landholdings, on which there are approvals for 27 homes totaling 205,600 square feet. The development approvals would be unaffected by the new proposal.

Wexner has already spent more than $65 million to acquire the two separate ranches that make up Two Shoes, Will noted. The strip of BLM land he wants to acquire would connect the two pieces, enhancing the value of his existing private holdings and the lots, open space officials contend. No development would occur on the BLM land, if it is traded to Wexner.

Requiring Wexner to convey some of his property to create the newly formed open space would create additional public gain in exchange for the added value Wexner would realize, Will said.

The alternative proposed trade also equalizes the amount of acreage to be gained and lost by the public, he said. Two Shoes would convey 1,055 acres to the public, including the Sutey Ranch, and receive 1,068 acres, including land in Eagle County that is to be sold to private parties — a separate deal that has been grouped in with the Sutey-BLM swap since it was proposed.

Wexner purchased the Sutey Ranch with the swap in mind. His representatives intend to seek congressional approval of the deal, but have hit a roadblock in their hopes to secure Pitkin County's endorsement, at least so far.

Management of the Sutey Ranch under the BLM remains a concern, Will said, including the agency's ability to actively manage the water rights that come with the property.

Open Space Board member Howie Mallory suggested the board urge commissioners to consider negotiating for a transfer fee on the sale of Two Shoes lots to help fund ongoing management of both the BLM land that would be placed in conservation under Wexner's ownership and of the Sutey Ranch.

“We don't want to shortchange open space by not being able to maintain it,” Mallory said.

“The biggest gap, at least right now, is the long-term stewardship and management of [Sutey] Ranch,” agreed Tim McFlynn, open space board member.

In a previous attempt to sweeten the land swap to Pitkin County, Wexner's representatives said they would put $50,000 toward development of a BLM management plan for Sutey Ranch.

In addition, $950,000 was to be donated to the open space program, including $100,000 for the restoration of historic buildings in Emma and $100,000 for historic preservation projects in Redstone.

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