A proposed U.S. Forest Service land sale to Pitkin and Eagle counties, which was already considered an unusual process, got even weirder on Wednesday.
Pitkin County officials have decided to file an objection against the environmental assessment conducted by the White River National Forest on the proposed sale of approximately 28 acres in El Jebel. A major point of objection is the Forest Service’s assumption that counties would pursue development of between 90 and 300 affordable housing units.
Without objection and possible correction, Pitkin County officials are concerned that the high-density assumption could inflate an appraisal the Forest Service must prepare for the sale.
“This would put Pitkin County and Eagle County in a very difficult position because we may not be able to purchase the land or the appraisal could come back much higher than the value of the land in our view.” , Ashley Perl, Pitkin County’s community resilience director, told county commissioners during a meeting Wednesday. The expertise of the federal agency will establish a final sale price. The process is not open for negotiation like a typical private transaction.
Therefore, Perl said, county staff were recommending that commissioners file a formal objection to the environmental assessment to ensure the county “keeps a seat at the table” and has a chance to resolve the issue. The Eagle County government is also submitting a similar letter of objection by the Oct. 31 deadline, she said.
Perl acknowledged that it’s unusual for the county to oppose an action it wants to see progress.
“It seems a bit counterintuitive because we oppose the (National Environmental Policy Act) on land that we may one day want to buy or lease,” she said.
But Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said it’s common for an entity that is supportive of Forest Service action to file an objection to retain a seat at the negotiating table. Ski areas, for example, regularly file an objection when their projects are involved, in case haters object as well, he said.
Nonetheless, Warner acknowledged that the El Jebel land sale process is one of the unusual projects in the White River National Forest.
Sale or lease of certain lands by the Forest Service is possible through the 2018 Farm Bill, which sets out specific procedures and reasons for surrenders. In this case, the process was unusual as the public was invited to comment on the proposed sale of the 28 acres without knowing exactly how the property will be used by buyers.
So where did the idea come from that counties would pursue between 90 and 300 housing units?
Eagle and Pitkin counties have the right of first refusal on the property. In 2016, Eagle County staff performed “back of the napkin” calculations on how many housing units the property could theoretically accommodate, but that was an informal exercise, Perl said. .
Since then, Eagle County has held “listening sessions” with select members of the public to determine potential uses for the 28 acres. Recreation, conservation and limited residential development were preferred by participants. However, no specific density has been identified.
The property is in the El Jebel area to the west and next to Crown Mountain Park. It was once part of a nursery used by the Forest Service in the 1960s and 1970s but closed in 1986. White River National Forest argues the property is an isolated outlier that it cannot properly manage.
The site includes two single-family homes, a dormitory for summer workers and two trailer platforms. The White River National Forest would be able to retain the funds from the sale or lease rather than remitting them to the National Treasury. Agency officials have said they want any future development plans to include affordable housing for its staff.
Although the proposed sale has not attracted much public attention, the future use of the property likely will. The neighborhood across East Valley Road is currently embroiled in a land use battle to limit the development of another private property in the area called The Fields. Many residents say their neighborhood is undergoing more development than the infrastructure can support and their quality of life is at risk.
The Forest Service’s environmental assessment says that once the agency hands over ownership, “future use is no longer within its control.”
However, Warner said the agency reviewed Eagle County’s informal calculations as part of its environmental assessment. “We looked at that and said, ‘Does this still make sense?’ Agency officials said yes, though the Forest Service realizes any development plans still have to go through the county approval process.
The objection letter offered by county staff to the Forest Service pointed out that the development density used by the agency in the assessment does not represent the intentions of Pitkin and Eagle counties. The wording was watered down slightly at the suggestion of Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who made adding affordable housing a primary issue.
She said Pitkin County commissioners had no discussion about appropriate density with their Eagle County counterparts.
“We often get criticized for being led by staff, so I don’t want to get ahead of our skis about that,” McNicholas Kury said.
She added that she wanted to avoid an “underestimate” of the potential density of affordable housing development on the site.
Warner said the federal valuation will focus on the “highest and best use” of the land, not necessarily what a buyer will pursue. He doesn’t necessarily share Pitkin County staff’s concern that the valuation will cost more than counties can pay. If so, he thinks a private sector buyer would be interested.
“I don’t have the worry that it won’t sell,” Warner said.
Pitkin County’s letter of objection will emphasize two other points. He wants the entire area to be available for sale or rental. The environmental assessment mentioned that the forest service could retain part of the land. Additionally, Pitkin County wants the water rights transferred with the property. The environmental assessment indicates that water rights “may” be transferred with the land.
The commissioners did not object to these additional points. The commissioners concluded that it was good policy to file the objection and put themselves in a position to negotiate the density issue with the Forest Service before the assessment was undertaken. The first step, the commissioners said, will be to discuss density with Eagle County commissioners.