Historic deal will preserve East Mesa ranch land | VailDaily.com

Historic deal will preserve East Mesa ranch land

Scott Condon/Aspen Correspondent

The East Mesa area outside of Carbondale is classic Colorado.

The pastures in a bucolic bowl are interrupted only by an occasional ranch house, barn, hayshed or machine shop. Cattle mosey throughout the area, browsing on the grass that still pokes up through the light blanket of snow.

The bowl rises to the shrub-covered hills of the Crown to the east. A juniper forest and the humble but picturesque white church of St. Mary’s of the Crown mark the west side. In the distance to the north is Missouri Heights and Cottonwood Pass.

Majestic Mount Sopris looms large on the south end of the mesa.

Some of that classic landscape will be preserved for perpetuity. Aspen Valley Land Trust –or, AVLT – is working on an agreement to acquire conservation easements on 200 acres owned by the John Nieslanik family.

The property is special enough that AVLT plans to alter its policy. “We never have bought land or easements before,” said Martha Cochran, AVLT director.

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The land trust, the oldest in Colorado, holds conservation easements on 61 pieces of property, encompassing 9,400 acres. Nearly all those easements gave as gifts.

To purchase these easement, AVLT applied for grants and received $450,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $250,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado. Another $250,000 is being sought. The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program is assessing whether or not to participate.

Backcountry link

Cochran said AVLT was willing to alter its approach to conservation because the Nieslanik property is a vital link between Carbondale and the backcountry lands beyond.

The agreement with the Nieslanik family would prohibit development but provide the opportunity to preserve the agricultural uses. The Nieslaniks would surrender the long-term financial advantages of selling the property for development but they would receive immediate tax benefits that could help them continue ranching, explained Cochran.

John Nieslanik’s 200 acres is kind of like the bull’s eye in a dart board. It’s close to the middle of the big naturally shaped bowl that comprises East Mesa. His property is flanked by land owned by Paul Nieslanik on one side and Bob Nieslanik on the other. Terry Considine owns a massive ranch adjacent to the Nieslaniks.

East Mesa sits on a bench just outside of Carbondale’s town limits. It’s accessed via White Hill.

Development dilemma

A year ago, it looked like the mesa was heading in a different direction. The Snowmass Land Co., a high-end residential development firm in Snowmass Village, had an option to buy Paul Nieslanik’s land. However, the company didn’t renew the option this summer, according to president John Sarpa.

After months of talking to neighbors and community leaders, Sarpa said, the development firm didn’t see how it could come up with a plan that would be successful in both gaining approval and being financially viable.

Snowmass Land Co. looked at a plan that would have combined selling residential lots for the valley’s working class as well as the wealthy. Preservation of a substantial amount of open space was also a key component.

“I think conservation is critical,” Sarpa said. “We just couldn’t come up with the right formula.”

Some observers felt clustered development was acceptable in return for preservation of most of the land. Others wanted all the land preserved, said Sarpa.

The Snowmass Land Co. was also concerned that Carbondale land-use reviews could be subject to citizen votes, as the fight over the Crystal River Marketplace proved. Voters rejected that shopping mall last summer after the council approved it.

“That weighed into the decision,” Sarpa acknowledged.

Further conservation

Preservation of a neighboring piece of land was a perfect project for Aspen Valley Land Trust, which merged last fall with another local conservation group, the Western Colorado Agricultural Heritage Fund.

The combined organization’s mission is to “permanently conserve lands for agriculture, open space, wildlife and recreation.” The organization’s motto is “Saving the Best to Last.”

The deal with John Nieslanik’s family is expected to be signed next spring. The Nieslaniks couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment.

Securing a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was key to the agreement. AVLT applied for funds through the Farmland Protection Program. That exists, according to the agriculture department’s web site, “to help purchase development rights to keep productive farmland in agricultural uses.”

East Mesa has some of the best, bona fide farmland in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Shannon Meyer, associate director of AVLT. Most of the ground in the valley is dominated by river rock. It’s high-quality soil on East Mesa.

Cochran said AVLT sees tremendous opportunity for further conservation on East Mesa. She said there are no guarantees that any other lands will be preserved, but the effort is off to a great start.