Pitkin County board OKs $5M Thompson Divide purchase

The Thompson Divide appeared on the agenda for Wednesday’s Pitkin County commissioner meeting, but the topic had nothing to do with oil and gas exploration.

Instead the county board voted unanimously to give preliminary approval to Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program to spend up to $5 million to buy more than 400 acres in the Divide south of Sunlight Ski Area.

“It’s right in the heart of the Thompson Divide,” said Dale Will, acquisitions director for the open space program. “This (purchase) will prevent the wrong sort of owner from subdividing it.”

The money for the purchase will come from the open space program — which is funded by a Pitkin County property tax ­— as well as an $854,000 grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, which invests state lottery profits in outdoor amenities.

A preliminary appraisal of the 406-acre property — which Will on Wednesday called “Thompson Divide Ranch” — came in at $4.5 million. Pitkin County will pay up to $5 million for the property based on a final appraisal yet to be completed, Will said.

If the final appraisal is higher than $5 million, the family that owns the three contiguous parcels will be able to take a charitable tax deduction on the difference. Will said he’s grateful the family, which has owned the property for decades and wants to remain anonymous, came to the open space program first when they decided to sell.

“It’s a lot like Owl Creek up there,” Will said, referring to the picturesque valley between Aspen and Snowmass Village. “It’s a big aspen grove around an open meadow.”

The area also represents valuable elk calving habitat, and the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife is interested in co-managing it for that reason, he said.

If the property sold on the open market, current zoning would allow subdivision of up to 13 lots for luxury home development, according to Will’s memo about the property to commissioners.

“And there’s no limit to house size up there,” he said Wednesday.

County open space officials don’t expect an uptick in visitation to the property once the sale goes through, Will said.

“We’d like to keep that backcountry as quiet as possible for the wildlife that live back there,” he said.

The Thompson Divide stretches from Sunlight Ski Area outside Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass and encompasses 221,500 acres of federal land in the White River and Gunnison national forests. The Divide includes portions of Pitkin County, Garfield County, Gunnison County, Mesa County and Delta County, though the purchase approved Wednesday includes only areas within Pitkin County.

The Thompson Divide, located southwest of Carbondale, was in the news in recent years because of a fight over oil and gas exploration leases on Bureau of Land Management property in the area. The leases were later canceled by the agency.

Commissioners will vote on final approval for the sale April 8.

jauslander@aspentimes.com