Open Space and Trails gets BOCC Approval for Historic Land Acquisition

Open Space and Trails gets BOCC Approval for Historic Land Acquisition

A pandemic, a property tax windfall, and federal legislation to fund public land acquisitions all converged around a swath of land in Pitkin County to result in Open Space and Trails’s (OST) recent historic acquisition. 

“I’ve been working on negotiations with this family and this round since 2019, but I’ve been conscious of the need to try to save this piece of property since I was hired in 1999,” said OST Acquisition Manager Dale Will. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of private land any more beautiful than this.”

Snowmass Falls Ranch is a 650-acre swath of undeveloped land in the upper Snowmass Creek Valley surrounded by the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. The OST board voted to recommend approval of the purchase to the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) at their Jan. 4 meeting for $34 million. 

At their meeting on Jan. 10, BOCC enthusiastically gave their approval for OST to move forward with the land purchase. 

“To me this is ‘Kate’s Place,’ not Snowmass Falls Ranch,” said Commisioner Steve Child. “This is a huge legacy for the people of Pitkin County, and I’m just so appreciative to the Perry family … as well as Open Space and Trails.”

The OST program of the county protects undeveloped land throughout the Roaring Fork Watershed via conservation easements and outright ownership. It began in 1990 with a voter-approved property tax fund that has been renewed three times in the program’s history, most recently extended to 2040. The OST department now holds 24,155 acres of land through conservation easements or ownership.

The land was once territory of the Ute People and eventually settled by Danish immigrant Kate Lindvig in the early 1900s, according to Pitkin County press release. She became known as the “Cattle Queen of Snow Mass” and assembled the ranch through the Homestead Act and other acquisitions.

She ran the ranch until 1943 when she sold to the Perry family. The ranch has remained in the Perry family for 80 years; it is now owned by Perry Family Snowmass, LLC, comprised of Bob and Ruth Perry’s descendants. 

According to Will, the land is still ranched, and he said he’s seen some cattle on the property, but it’s not the most productive ranchland in the valley with its short grass-growing season at higher elevation.

The land itself falls in the “wilderness” zone of Pitkin County — an unusual designation for private property as property rights. 

Waterfalls, aspen meadows, beaver ponds, trout streams, and a view of Mount Daly all contribute to its scenic nature. The Snowmass Lake trailhead is located just outside of the ranch gate, and the trail runs through the property, with the West Snowmass trail branching off of it.

“It’s incredibly scenic. It’s got this historic agricultural component. It’s valuable habitat. And there’s a trail that’s been running through it since Kate Linvig conveyed the easement to the Snowmass Lake Trail way back in the 1930s,” Will said. “Thousands of people walk through it every year on their way into the back country in the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness. And most of those people don’t realize that if the wrong series of events happened, it would no longer feel like wilderness back there. It could come to feel like luxury home subdivision or something or a country club, God forbid.”

How OST will afford the $34 million pricetag

The Snowmass Falls Ranch acquisition eclipses any prior purchase in OST’s history by double — the next closest would be the 845-acre Sky Mountain Park acquisition for $17 million in 2010. 

When the property was first listed for sale around 2019, the asking price was $50 million. It was more than OST could afford, but as years passed, circumstances for both parties changed.

“Essentially, what’s happened over the last three years is our sense of the value has gone up, especially with the COVID market, and a lot of the COVID flight out of the cities drove property values up in Aspen. But at the same time, they weren’t able to sell it after the three hottest selling seasons and in recent history,” Will said. “One thing led to the next, and their sense of value and our sense of value finally intersected.”

The sale is set to close Feb. 5. The 2023 actual revenue for OST was $13.8 million. With this purchase, OST will spend down most of its funds. Other funds come from a last-minute decision in 2020 to sell bonds in preparation for this exact purchase, according to him.

“For the near term, (the OST team) has been joking around that I’m gonna have to work for free this year,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not quite that bad. As our revenue from 2024 starts to trickle in … we can keep the lights on. But the day this thing closes, our fund balance is kind of dropped down to maintenance level for the program for the next quarter while the (property tax) revenue starts to come in.”

And that property tax revenue is a major part of why OST is able to secure this acquisition. With assessed property values rising at an average of 54%, that means property tax collected could rise by 54% for unrestricted funds. Because the property tax fund that supplies OST with its budget is debruced, there is no restriction on the amount their tax revenue can increase year over year.

The county decided to grant a small temporary mill levy credit to the OST fund in December, to collect just 50% more in property tax revenue in 2024 than they did in 2023. That will result in a $20.7 million revenue budget for 2024, $6.9 million more than 2023. 

And although the acquisition will nearly exhaust OST funds for a while, the goal is to regain some liquidity through a $10 million loan from Great Outdoors Colorado and recoup much of the funds through a deal with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). 

Will said that acquisitions with the intent to sell to USFS are not typical with OST, but the 2020 passage of the Great American Outdoors Act “opened the tap” on Land and Water Conservation Fund money.

“Through the Wilderness Land Trust and their expertise in these wilderness holdings, we started a conversation with the Forest Service what this property,” he said. “We’re poised to try to get some of that money back, so that we can reprogram out to new acquisition and conservation projects over the next couple of years by working with the Forest Service to have some of this land absorbed in Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness.”

Five cabins exist on the property and are far outside the utility capabilities of any municipal government. He said it’s likely USFS won’t want to purchase about 80 acres of the ranchland, which includes the land on which the cabins sit. 

Will said OST has not yet decided what to do with land USFS would not want but is considering selling it back to members of the Perry family.

And if the deal between OST and USFS falls apart, he said their board and staff have planned for that. They could sell to a private buyer with a conservation easement, or they could just own the land outright.

“The best case is we get a lot of this money back from the Forest Service. But if the worst case is that we’ve prevented development of the sacred land, and now we’re just going to own it,” he said. “Anywhere along that spectrum, we’re still happy.”

By: Josie Taris | The Aspen Times I January 12, 2024

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