Rather suddenly, during Tuesday’s afternoon work session with the Open Space Commission, Mayor John Pryor “announced the intent” to have the foundation, a non-profit conservation organization under the guidance of executive director Gary Hickcox, become the grantee of the conservation easement planned for the 570-acre parcel.
“I’m not sure just what happened … but I’m going to assume we are going to be made the holder of the conservation easement,” Hickcox responded at the meeting at Rebekah Hall after Pryor made the somewhat surprising announcement, which will still require an official vote by council to be finalized.
Up to now Hickcox, whose wife, Jane, has been involved in the Valley Floor Preservation Partners’ effort to raise funds for the Valley Floor condemnation, had been low key. The organizational mandate of the SMCF, which is to work with private landowners on conservation matters, as opposed to joining the fray in the eminent domain fight, prevented him from being a pro-active player as events unfolded.
But that’s changed now.
“I can’t be involved in promoting land condemnation,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I have stayed out of this because of that. I kept my mouth shut, and sometimes that’s hard for me to do. But believe me, I have lived and breathed this (with Jane) for the past 18 months.
“They (the VFPP) did their job. Now it’s time to do mine.”
Though the fate of the $50 million open space asset is still to be determined by the Colorado Supreme Court, which will be adjudicating the San Miguel Valley Corporation’s appeal of the town’s condemnation of the property sometime this fall, Telluride Town Manager Frank Bell said there’s plenty of work that can be done by the foundation in advance.
Bell said after 24 conservation organizations were contacted by the town to manage the conservation easement, the SMCF is the only one that responded that it was interested.
Since 1993, the SMCF has offered professional, legal, tax and environmental land planning expertise to private landowners interested in the income, estate or property tax benefits that result from land preservation. Often engaging in cooperative efforts with the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County, as well as such land preservation groups as the Nature Conservancy, more than 6,100 acres in San Miguel County are currently under stewardship of the SMCF.
A portion of that is total is Bear Creek, which includes 414 acres purchased in early 1995 for $4 million with a split in public and private money, including money from Rich Salem, one of the founders and the president of the SMCF.
In addition, in 2005 the SMCF completed a two-part conservation easement deal with the Schmid Family Ranch, a transaction that preserved 800 acres. A five-year process, the $1.6 million purchase – partly funded with a $600,000 lottery grant from Great Outdoors Colorado – was negotiated with a partnership between the SMCF, the San Miguel County Open Space Commission and The Nature Conservancy.
Other preservation efforts by the SMCF include Specie Mesa, the Irwin Ranch, the Herndon Ranch on Wright’s Mesa and Waterfall Canyon with the Town of Ophir.
At the get-go, Hickcox will have a lot of material and information to work with in managing the Valley Floor. For beginners, in the time since May 22, when San Miguel County District Court Judge Charles Greenacre granted the town limited possession of the Valley Floor, the town has been operating by a set of parameters listed in the order, including:
-Pedestrian access for walking and biking
-Bicycle access on established trails and pathways
-Cross-country skiing accompanied by motorized grooming of the trails this winter
-Hang and paragliding above the property and landing on the subject property
-Watercraft access (via kayak, canoes, tubes and rafts) and passage of the same along the entire portion of the San Miguel River as it extends through the property
-Fishing access along the entire portion of the San Miguel River as it extends through the property.”
The restrictions include no motorized access other than for the creation of cross-country ski trails; no large congregations or festival events, no parking, no camping and no dogs allowed.
In addition, Valley Floor trekkers must avoid “environmentally sensitive areas like the wetlands, the Telski mitigation site, or the mine tailing areas,” according to the court order.
Also as part of the court order, the town will be responsible for taking off the “no trespass” signs. Instead, the town is authorized to post signs indicating the allowable uses for the property.
The problem is, Bell said recently, even with the restrictions in place, in theory, “The Valley Floor is in danger of being loved to death.” While members of the Open Space Commission did a site walk last week of the Valley Floor to determine what other measures need to be taken, the responsibility of many matters related to Telluride’s three-mile-long gateway has fallen into Bell’s hands, the Open Space Commission, town staff, and now, the SMCF.
“We didn’t really didn’t have a plan in place for the interim management of the Valley Floor,” Bell said. “As we look toward deed ownership, the sensitivities are not the same … We need to get through the contingencies.”
For example, Councilmember Stu Fraser said Tuesday that dogs are still seen on the grounds. One matter confusing the issue is that one of the most traveled trails along the Valley Floor is actually located on U.S. Forest Service property which canines can, from time to time, use as access to the condemned land to the north.
“We will do some additional signage out there to make sure where dogs are appropriate,” Bell said.
Hickcox said that unlike Bear Creek, dogs will be a serious issue in managing the Valley Floor since they can cause quite a disturbance for the elk herds residing there and passing through.
The town manager said the SMCF’s role during this interim period would be as a consultant, laying the groundwork for when (and if) the town’s legal representation can finish the job in court this fall.
Hickcox told the council that preliminary paperwork on the conservation plan, such as a baseline documentation report, could begin now. That would better prepare the way, he said, as the town enters the last phase: the completion of the condemnation battle with the SMVC, with the Supreme Court match-up likely to go on into the new year.
For example, a baseline documentation report can be done before the winter months make outdoor work difficult, he said. The report would collect information on the property to determine wildlife habitat, riparian and open space issues, as well as what the monitoring responsibilities will eventually be.
“I would rather do these things in advance,” he said. “That’s way we won’t have arguments down the road.”