ASPEN - A deal that makes a proposed Carbondale-area land exchange palatable to Pitkin County won initial approval from county commissioners Wednesday by a 4-1 vote.
Only Commissioner Michael Owsley refused to endorse the negotiated agreement between the county and wealthy landowners Leslie and Abigail Wexner, calling public lands "non-negotiable."
The agreement is separate from the proposed land swap but secures the county's support for the trade, which is currently under consideration by the Bureau of Land Management. If commissioners approve the agreement on second reading, scheduled Jan. 8 after a public hearing, the county will forward an already-drafted letter to the BLM endorsing the exchange proposal.
"I oppose it just based on principle," Owsley said. "We are custodians of our public lands, and those public lands are non-negotiable.
"The deal appeals to four commissioners, but it doesn't appeal to me."
Through the negotiated agreement with the county, the Wexners will place a conservation easement on about 370 acres at their ranch that have been identified as important winter habitat for elk and bighorn sheep; relinquish development rights for 10 single-family homes representing about 50,000 square feet of buildings; move a planned indoor riding arena to a spot less visible from the Crystal River Valley; and provide as much as $700,000 for property acquisition and construction of a trail along part of Prince Creek Road. The trail would connect to a parcel that is among the properties in play with the proposed land exchange.
"In essence, we believe we've negotiated an agreement that meets the board's goals," County Manager Jon Peacock said.
Until now, the majority of Pitkin County's commissioners have opposed the land trade, putting them at odds with other local governments and various conservation and recreation groups.
Through the land swap, the Wexners hope to acquire about 1,200 acres of Bureau of Land Management property on the flank of Mount Sopris outside Carbondale. The land would consolidate their Two Shoes Ranch holdings, creating about 5,600 acres of private property below the signature peak. They have offered to turn over to the BLM the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale and adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area, plus a 112-acre piece along Prince Creek Road near Carbondale that is used by mountain bikers and others to access the Crown, a popular recreation area. Finally, the BLM would receive $1.1 million to develop a management plan for the properties it acquires and for their long-term management.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who solely supported the land exchange from the start, said he hoped to see unanimous approval of the deal between the county and the Wexners, but Owsley declined.
"What is before us today has even more benefits for Pitkin County than the previous negotiations had," Hatfield said.
Commissioner Rob Ittner agreed that the deal enhances the value of the land swap for Pitkin County residents (the BLM land to be traded is in Pitkin County, while the Sutey Ranch is in Garfield County), and he lauded the Wexners' various local activities.
"They're great contributors to a great deal of our nonprofits," Ittner said.
Leslie Wexner, an Ohio businessman, is the billionaire CEO and chairman of the board of the Limited Brands corporation. He also owns a home in the Aspen area.
Commissioners George Newman and Rachel Richards also said the deal between the county and the Wexners improves the exchange from the county's perspective. It was the county's critical eye toward the land swap that made it better, leading to the addition of the mountain-biking parcel in the proposal that was submitted to the BLM, Richards noted.
In addition, she said, the potential for oil and gas development will be extinguished on the BLM land if it is traded to the Wexners. Sometimes land in private ownership is better protected, she concluded.
Owsley, however, criticized a federal process that he said won't take into account the enormous value the Wexners will realize if the BLM land is added to their adjacent landholdings. And he decried the loss of public lands that belong to everyone regardless of their financial means.
"The wealth of those public lands is shared equally between all of us," he said.