For the second time in less than five years the U.S. Forest Service is taking public comments on a proposal to sell or lease land next to Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel.
The White River National Forest staff is working on an Environmental Assessment on the possible sale or lease of 30 acres along Valley Road. The proposed area used to be part of the Forest Service tree farm that operated there into the 1970s. The site includes two single-family homes, a season employee bunkhouse, two mobile home pads, a pasture and an equipment boneyard.
Eagle and Pitkin counties have the first right of refusal and they “intend to exercise that right,” the Forest Service said in a notice to interested parties.
The concept likely sounds familiar to midvalley residents. The White River staff initiated an Environmental Impact Statement — a more detailed study — on a similar proposal in 2016. At that time, the plan was to also sell 40 acres of riparian lands on a lower bench by the Roaring Fork River as well as the 30 acres on the upper parcel. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encouraged the Forest Service to keep the lower bench in federal hands because it is good habitat for an orchid called Ute ladies’ tresses, a plant listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service will retain that lower parcel, which also provides excellent access to the river corridor for anglers and hikers. It will reserve an easement on the upper parcel for an existing parking lot and trailhead.
The Forest Service decided internally to stop the EIS on the sale-lease proposal after it was determined the lower parcel would be retained, spokesman David Boyd said. Now, the agency believes an Environmental Assessment will suffice. So, even though people were given an opportunity to comment in 2017, they now have another chance to weigh in on the scaled back plan.
The challenge for interested members of the public is they don’t know what exactly Eagle County and partners will do with the property, if acquired.
Eagle County hired a consultant in 2021 to hold “listening sessions” with stakeholders and a limited number of public to determine potential uses for the 30 acres on the upper parcel. Affordable housing (including senior housing), an expansion of Crown Mountain Park and preservation of open space were the favored directions.
Eagle County manager Jeff Shroll said the county would pledge to stick to those criteria. However, it is impossible at this point to say how much affordable housing would be sought. The county will likely pursue a project with Pitkin County and the town of Basalt. They don’t want to spend a lot of money on a plan until they know they can acquire the site, he said.
A sale would require the Forest Service to appraisal the land. There would be no negotiations on the sale price. It would be a take-it-or-leave-it deal based on the appraisal, as required by federal regulations, Shroll said.
Any affordable housing proposal would go through Eagle County’s review process. Earning approval from neighborhood residents could be a challenge. Many residents along Valley Road contend the route is already overwhelmed and has inadequate sidewalks and trails.
That neck of the woods is also the proposed site of a large residential project called The Fields, which could add more than 100 homes.
The Forest Service won’t be involved in determining the uses for the property it sells or leases.
“Our decision is limited to whether we make the parcel available for conveyance, not what the future use would be,” Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Kevin Warner said in a statement. “However, we will address potential future uses in our environmental analysis.”
Forest Service officials contend they can no longer maintain the aging buildings on the upper parcel. The proceeds from a sale or lease would raise funds that remain in the White River National Forest.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has previously said he would like to see the agency gain employee housing and warehouse space in any sale or lease of the property.
An open house will be held to provide information and answer questions on March 7 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the El Jebel Community Center by Crown Mountain Park. To comment on the proposal, see the related sidebar.