Public faces leap of faith on fate of Forest Service midvalley site
Proposed land uses won’t be ironed out until after comment period ends
Residents of the Roaring Fork Valley will have to be comfortable with a leap of faith when it comes to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed sale or lease of 30 acres of prime ground in the midvalley.
The Forest Service is accepting public comments on the proposal through March 28 as part of an environmental assessment. Interested parties are being asked to comment on proposed environmental impacts from what is likely to be a land conveyance to Eagle and Pitkin counties.
“The counties intend to exercise their first right of refusal,” the White River National Forest supervisor’s office said in its notice of proposed action. “Eagle County has identified some likely uses, based upon listening sessions they held earlier in 2021, such as senior housing and recreational use similar to that at the neighboring Crown Mountain Park.”
However, the counties haven’t gotten far enough along with a plan to be able to identify how much housing would be sought. A proposal for 25 units might be viewed differently than a proposal for 50 units, for example.
At a public open house hosted by the U.S. Forest Service on March 7, some attendees noted they would be able to submit better-informed comments if they knew the end use of the property.
White River public affairs officer David Boyd acknowledged Tuesday that the comment process is different with this proposed project.
“We understand that this is a little different from what we are usually asking the public to review and provide comments about because our decision is only about whether or not we convey the property, not the end use,” Boyd said in an email. “We can address some specific concerns we hear from the public about potential conveyance in our decision, such as maintaining access to the 40-acre lower parcel (which will remain in Forest Service possession). We will also analyze some potential future uses in the Environmental Assessment to disclose potential impacts.”
The last time the Forest Service conveyed land in El Jebel to Eagle and Pitkin counties, it provided a huge public benefit. In 1993, the Forest Service traded 120 acres at the former tree nursery for hundreds of acres of mining claims owned by Pitkin County in the mountains surrounding Aspen. Eagle County took possession of the land and leased a major portion to Crown Mountain Park. The park has matured into an immensely popular amenity.
The Forest Service decided in 2017 it wanted to dispose of additional land at the site. Initially, it wanted to sell or lease 30 acres on an upper bench along Valley Road as well as 40 acres on a lower bench along the Roaring Fork River. It backed off the sale of the lower property when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service objected. The agency said the riparian area provided excellent habitat for the Ute lady’s tresses, an orchid listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service argued that the habitat for the orchid could be protected if the land remained in the hands of a federal agency, but not if it was in private hands.
The White River National Forest regrouped and now, five years later, is restarting the environmental assessment for just the upper bench of 30 acres.
In a separate but related action, Eagle County government hired a consultant in 2021 to holding “listening sessions” with parties identified as stakeholders and a limited number of members of the public to help determine possible future uses of the property. The top options came out to be affordable housing with a preference for senior housing, expansion of Crown Mountain Park and preservation of open house.
Eagle County manager Jeff Shroll recently said the public could count on those uses remaining the same and not be concerned about surprises.
Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney attended the March 7 open house and noted after the meeting that some members of the public were eager to know the intended uses. Like Shroll, she said the county would stick to the uses identified in the listening sessions.
But that still doesn’t address how many units of affordable housing might be sought in a neighborhood where many residents are wary of additional growth.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, who also attended the open house, acknowledged the process “is difficult to understand.”
“The EA is on the conveyance of the land, not the end use of the land,” Peacock said.
However, he noted that there is more certainty for the public with the counties interested in acquiring the property than if a private sector party was acquiring it. A developer could propose anything, he said, while the counties are guided by the listening sessions and Eagle County’s land-use master plan for the area.
It’s early in the process and the public will get to weigh in on whatever the counties propose. The town of Basalt is also a proposed partner in a housing project.
“There’s not a specific project because the partners haven’t gotten that far,” Peacock said.
Complicating the matter is federal process on valuing the 30 acres.
“The appraisal will be done for the highest and best potential use of the parcel, which is standard for an appraisal that’s part of a potential land conveyance,” Boyd said.
In other words, the Forest Service is required to sell the property based on full development potential.
The appraisal will be undertaken by the Forest Service’s regional office in Denver. That appraisal hasn’t been scheduled yet, Boyd said.
Details on the proposal conveyance and instructions on how to submit comments are available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50663. The deadline to comment is March 28.
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