Research, patience earns man $1.3 million for Aspen mining claims
November 7, 2016
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails officials figured seven years ago in 2009 they had acquired the last remaining private land to pose a development threat in Hunter Creek Valley.
They were startled when a new, privately owned mining claim emerged out of an unlikely scenario a couple years ago. Once again, a threat loomed that the popular recreational area known as Aspen's backyard would have year-round motorized access to a residence.
Dale Will, acquisitions and special projects director for the open space program, said Silverthorne resident Robert D. Small had done meticulous research to acquire parts of the Rolland T. and Mamie W. lodes on the ridge north of Hunter Creek Valley, a short distance from the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, northeast of Aspen.
According to Will, Small's research using federal mining-claim maps showed there was property in private hands that wasn't on the Pitkin County tax roll. The interests in the Rolland and Mamie became so fractionalized over the decades after the silver boom that the county wasn't collecting taxes any longer, Will said.
Open space official Dale Will said he considered the value of the Rolland T. and Mamie W. mining claims “somewhere between nothing and priceless.”
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Small used his skills in genealogy to track down heirs of some of the owners. He tapped into the world's largest collection of genealogical records at the Granite Mountain Records Vault near Salt Lake City. He approached the people who often didn't even know they owned a mining claim interest outside of Aspen. He offered small amounts for their interests in the mining claims and eventually amassed a substantial share, Will said.
Small filed what's known as a quiet title action in federal court and was awarded title to the southern portion of the two mining claims, according to a document recorded with the Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder on Feb. 14, 2012.
He became the owner of 10.45 acres that was isolated yet potentially lucrative in the land of billionaires. The U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County remain owners of the northern portion of the mining claims, according to Larry Fite, deputy assessor.
Pitkin County Open Space became aware of the property "two or three years ago," Will said. The county was interested in buying the property, but first wanted to determine if there were any other old, patented mining claims that could fall into private ownership. It didn't want to have to keep doling out big bucks to keep Hunter Creek Valley free of development.
The county hired a title expert referred to them by Wilderness Land Trust, a nonprofit that acquires private holdings surrounded by wilderness and prevents development. That expert examined remaining mining claims in Hunter Creek Valley.
"Is there anything else out there? The conclusion was, 'Nope, there isn't,'" Will said.
Negotiations between open space and Small started just over one year ago, according to Will. One difficulty was establishing the value.
"In my opinion, it's a wild-assed guess," Will acknowledged.
On the one hand, accessing the property requires a "bumpy, 40-minute ride," he noted. Plus Pitkin County's unique Rural and Remote Zoning applies to the property. That zoning allows a modest cabin with no utilities. Nevertheless, the property sits in a meadow that provides fantastic views down Hunter Creek Valley to the distant Maroon Bells.
The property had the potential to become a trophy cabin for someone with enough money to acquire it and build in the inaccessible spot, Will said.
For that reason, he considered the value of the Rolland T. and Mamie W. "somewhere between nothing and priceless."
The assessor's office assigned an actual value to the property of $195,000. Fite said that had been the price that transferable development rights were selling for during the last property-valuation period. County rules allow the sale of transferable development rights from areas where development is discouraged to areas where it is allowed.
The county and Small negotiated a sales price of $1.3 million, plus one transferable development right. The open space board of directors approved the proposal Thursday. The county commissioners will hold the first of two readings on the proposal Dec. 7. They have the option of paying $1.5 million and eliminating the transferable development rights. An anonymous donor has contributed $100,000 toward the purchase.
"We decided at this price, the public wins," Will said.
Small's voicemail was full and he couldn't be reached for comment.
The Aspen community and county government have made substantial efforts over the past 50 years to keep Hunter Creek Valley free of development. Mining claims were purchased in 1998, 2004 and 2009. A substantial amount of private property was acquired through a community effort in the 1970s and added to the national forest.
Will said the open space program is confident this will be the last required purchase.