Pitkin County Commissioners are being asked to take action Wednesday, Jan. 23, to purchase a 36-acre agricultural parcel in Emma and authorize the purchase of a conservation easement covering 1,222 acres at the mouth of Thompson Creek.
The Emma land purchase would cost $1 million, while the conservation easement would cost $8.9 million in county open space funds, along with $1 million from Great Outdoors Colorado and $100,000 from Aspen Valley Land Trust, which would co-hold the conservation easement. Transaction costs of up to $10,000 will be added to the cost of both deals.
The Payne parcel off Emma Road would be added to roughly 1,100 acres of agricultural land in the immediate vicinity that have already been protected through a combination of Open Space and Trails land purchases and conservation easements, including the 10-acre Grace Open Space parcel adjacent to Grace Church. The county finalized that $600,000 purchase on Tuesday, Jan. 15.
The irrigated Payne parcel is adjacent to BLM lands at the foot of the Crown and serves as winter elk habitat. In fact, a herd of elk was spotted on the Payne/BLM border when the Open Space and Trails Board visited the property on Jan. 3, and it was evident the animals had bedded down on the property, according to Dale Will, acquisition and special projects director.
The land is also next to the Crown Mountain Ranch conservation easement, which protects 559 acres of private property. Open Space and Trails intends to analyze the Payne property’s habitat values and may then seek an agricultural lessee to use the land in a manner that is sensitive to wildlife needs. The ordinance to be considered by commissioners also allows the county to consider selling the property to an adjacent ranch, but with a conservation easement in place to eliminate development and restrict use of the parcel to habitat and agricultural purposes.
The iconic, 1,240-acre Sunfire Ranch in the Crystal Valley at Thompson Creek is unique among large conservation deals by the Open Space and Trails program in that the ranch has 29 existing development rights established in the early 1970s, Will said. The lots were created before county zoning in the Crystal Valley. The proposed conservation easement would protect 1,222 acres, eliminating potential development on the ranch’s high ground, where important habitat exists, and protecting agricultural resources.
“Rather than 29 lots spread across the heights of Thompson Canyon, we would end up with six lots clustered in a location that is outside critical habitat and shielded from view along Hwy. 133,” Will said. The highway is part of the West Elk Loop Scenic Byway.
The county has been negotiating the Sunfire Ranch conservation easement since 2015, Will noted. The actual purchase of the easement would occur after the landowner secures approval of an Open Space Master Plan for the property from both the Open Space and Trails Board and County Commissioners. That action is anticipated this summer. The basic terms of the master plan, along with the price of the easement, have already been established, Will explained. The approved master plan will finalize the details of allowed development on the ranch.
The terms that have been negotiated allow six free-market homesites on 15 acres that can be divided off the ranch and establishes an 18-acre gravel extraction area for an operation that already exists. The contract allows the county to eliminate the gravel operation and replace the homesites with a single, 10-acre family compound for an additional $2.2 million. Within the compound, five homes, each with an accessory dwelling unit and each limited to 4,000 square feet in total, would be permitted. Under this scenario, the family compound would remain on a single parcel that would be owned in common with the ranch as a whole.
Once the master plan receives final approval, the conservation easement purchase would take place. The GOCO grant requires that the transaction occur by March 2020.
“The Sunfire Ranch easement would rank among other significant conservation deals to protect large ranches in Pitkin County,” Will said. Others include the Grange Ranch near Basalt, Cold Mountain Ranch in the Crystal Valley and Crown Mountain Ranch in Emma. In addition, Jerome Park straddles Pitkin and Garfield counties outside of Carbondale.
Contact: Dale Will, Acquisition and Special Projects Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-618-5708