Fiester Preserve dispute may have been avoided with land swap that never came to be
The dispute over the potential condemnation of the Fiester Preserve, a small piece of Summit County open space on the county commons, has become tempest in a High Country teapot. Some of the most pressing social issues in Summit — including the lack of affordable housing, strongly-held Colorado conservation values and the tension between government and the people it represents — have been thrown into the fray as the county tries to extinguish a conservation easement while neighboring homeowners campaign to stop them.
Though there hasn’t been much in the way of recent developments, the story behind Fiester has roots and tales that go under and beyond the 6.13 acre plot. That includes a hypothetical question as to how the dispute may have been settled amicably with a land swap that could have seen a bigger parcel of land saved in exchange for development rights to the disputed parcel.
The story so far
The Fiester Preserve is a seemingly innocuous piece of land at the corner of Colorado Highway 9 and Peak One Boulevard sits on the western edge of the county commons and to the east of the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood. For the past 25 years, it has served as a buffer between the neighborhood and county development.
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A conservation easement was placed on the land in 1998 by the Board of County Commissioners to keep the parcel free of development, to serve as an access portal to the national forest to the south and as a natural viewshed that retains a view of the Tenmile Range.
The open space used to have a lot of trees, but they were killed off by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Efforts have been made by the county and neighboring residents in the years since to replant trees to restore the forested nature of the preserve.
Recently, the county has sought to change the easement on its own land. Current board and County Manager Scott Vargo have said that the easement was not well thought-out by the commissioners of the time, and that it was created without forseeing the massive need for workforce housing in the future.
The board has now directed the land be reclaimed for full use by the county, with the anticipated development of the land for senior and workforce housing. The open space non-profit Colorado Open Lands owns the easement and has vowed to fight its extinguishment.
Bill’s Ranch residents have also pushed back, using a political messaging campaign to keep the issue in the public eye. At the core of their contention to keep the easement on the land is that the county made a promise to keep Fiester Preserve free of development in perpetuity.
Despite not having any legal right to the conservation easement themselves, the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood association have invested deeply into protecting the land, including setting up their own non-profit, “Friends of the Fiester Preserve,” to raise money for a political campaign against condemnation.
A swap that never came to be
A floated solution that might have headed off the current disagreement between the county and Colorado Open Lands was an amicable land swap that would have seen Fiester developed in exchange for protection of another piece of land.
In Summit County, where the vast majority of land area is owned and protected from development by the U.S. Forest Service, a common way of developing land involves the exchange of the development rights of the desired land for a bigger, better land parcel that would be protected in its stead.
County Manager Scott Vargo said that in years past, there had been verbal conversations about a possible land swap with Continental Divide Land Trust, the land conservation non-profit that originally owned the Fiester conservation easement and merged with Colorado Open Lands last year.
Vargo said that the most promising proposal had the county swapping the easement from the land trust with a conservation easement on county-owned forest land southeast of Fiester and west of the Miners Creek trailhead. That land parcel is currently zoned as open space within the county commons planned unit development. It’s currently protected, but has no conservation easement and could easily be re-zoned by the county. The land has forest trail access and is larger than Fiester’s six acres.
Vargo said the conversation changed after Continental Divide Land Trust merged with Colorado Open Lands. Colorado Open Lands’ philosophy differed from the land trust: seeing that every conservation easement had an individual purpose that could not be ignored for better land somewhere else.
Colorado Open Lands President and CEO Tony Caligiuri said that a swap and voluntary extinguishment of the easement would also set a potential precedent for the courts to see conservation easements as not worth protecting.
Discussions of a land swap ended, and now the county intends to use the other legal means at its disposal to regain control of the property outright.
Though there may be the possibility of restarting negotiations between the county and Colorado Open Lands, at the moment there is no discussion taking place. Requests for updated comment from Colorado Open Lands and past members of the Continental Divide Land Trust were not returned as of publication.
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