Steamboat Springs Landowner and philanthropist Lyman Orton is offering to sell 580 acres appraised at about $2 million on Emerald Mountain’s north side to the city, in a potential sale that would permanently allow public use of the popular hiking and mountain biking area but comes at a time of an extremely tight city budget.
Nothing with the potential sale — including Orton’s price for the land — is finalized, and negotiations are continuing. The Steamboat Springs City Council is scheduled to discuss the issue Tuesday night, likely in a session closed to the public because the discussion involves land acquisition and real estate negotiations. Steamboat Springs City Manager Jon Roberts said last week that the city has $600,000 in grant funds from Great Outdoors Colorado available for the purchase and that conceptual talks about the property have been under way for several months.
“We’re getting close,” Roberts said. “There is some GOCo grant money, and we are going to go to the council on (Tuesday). That’ll kind of be the decision date on whether or not we go forward with the acquisition of the property.”
Orton owns a total of about 1,200 acres on Emerald’s north side, south and west of the Fairview neighborhood and south of 13th Street, also known as Twentymile Road. The 580 acres he has offered to the city are outside of city limits and lie directly west of the dirt portion of Blackmer Drive that winds up the mountain from Fairview. The acres are under a conservation easement through the Yampa Valley Land Trust. Orton long has allowed public use of the land for recreation such as hiking and mountain biking.
The acres for sale include numerous singletrack trails, the Heart Meadow, a large upper meadow and many areas enjoyed by mountain bikers.
“I would say it encompasses all of the (mountain biking) trails,” Orton said about the site for sale in relation to the rest of his land. He said he does not have any plans for the remaining 600 acres or so that he owns.
He said the parcel for sale to the city is not on the open market.
“I haven’t offered the land for sale to anybody else,” he said last week.
Orton said a purchase by the city would allow permanent public access to the property.
“I bought that land back in the early ’90s, and I’ve let the community use it and access it, recreate on it and so on … and it came to the point where I feel the best long-term action is to get the land into the hands of a public entity so it could be used as a park in perpetuity,” said Orton, 68. “We’ve developed … a vision for that piece of land.”
Dan Smilkstein is president of the Howelsen and Emerald Mountain Park board of directors. He said should the city buy Orton’s land, HEMP would become the managing entity of the site that one day would include “a destination Nordic center,” drawing visitors for cross-country skiing and winter recreation.
In the summer, Smilkstein said, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps would use the new Nordic lodge for summer operations and the Nordic ski trails would become hiking trails. The site selected for the future Nordic lodge, however, is on a 70-acre parcel owned by Orton that is immediately south of Fairview and not included in the 580 acres for sale to the city.
Smilkstein said the 70-acre parcel has a higher proportional value than the 580 acres for sale. Including the 70 acres in the offer would make the total cost too prohibitive and has stalled previous negotiations, Smilkstein said.
Smilkstein also is director of the annual North Routt Coureur des Bois cross-country ski race. In addition to him and Orton, participants in discussions about the land’s future use include Gretchen Van De Carr, youth corps executive director; Gretchen Sehler, Town Challenge Mountain Bike
Race Series director; Birgitta Lindgren, owner of the Steamboat Ski Touring Center; Susan Dorsey, executive director of the Yampa Valley Land Trust and many more.
“We started working on this idea three years ago,” Smilkstein said. “If there’s not a deal reached, it’s going to go away for a period of time.”
Dorsey said the Land Trust’s conservation easement does not provide public access to Orton’s land. That decision has been Orton’s.
“This would be a way for us to solidify and make permanent that public access that has been such a wonderful gift,” she said about a city land purchase. “This (access) is out of Lyman’s generosity and his gift to our community … and that may not always be the case with future owners.”
She said the easement does allow for a few cabins on the property. A private buyer could decide to close public access, she speculated.
“If the community decides not to accept it, it could go into private hands,” she said. Orton “could sell that parcel of land to anyone else he wants to sell it to.”
In summer 2008, Orton approached city officials with a proposal to extend the city and county’s urban growth boundary. He envisioned a neighborhood with as many as 475 homes and a Nordic ski lodge on 464 acres of his property.
Orton said last week that the land in that proposal was separate from the 580 acres for sale to the city. He said he’s no longer considering the development.
“I’ve dropped the plans to do that. It became apparent that the city wasn’t going to add that to the UGB,” he said. “So I’ve moved on in my thinking since then, and I don’t have any plans to do that particular development.”
He indicated that selling the 580 acres to the city could be something of a personal legacy.
“I’ve owned this land for going on 18, 20 years now. … I don’t have any immediate plans to do anything else, but I’m not going to live forever,” he said. “It’s a pretty good chance for a pretty good price for the city to get ownership of it.”
Dollars and sense
City finance officials are crafting a 2011 budget based on a third consecutive year of projected reductions in sales tax revenues.
Those reductions have meant cuts to numerous city departments and ongoing furloughs for city employees, who continue to work — and get paid for — 36 hours per week.
“There’s no question that we don’t have unlimited city funds at this point,” City Councilman Jon Quinn said last week.
Roberts said that in initial conversations about the Orton parcel, city officials thought they’d be able to use $2 million in GOCo funding received for three separate land conservation purchases. Two of those purchases fell through, Roberts said.
“There was, several years ago, a GOCo grant to acquire properties throughout the valley, and it was about $2 million,” he said. “Initially, GOCo had indicated to us that we could transfer those dollars all to the acquisition of the Lyman Orton property.”
That indication changed about two weeks ago.
“Then we received notification from GOCo that we could not transfer the dollars and combine them,” Roberts said. “That leaves us with about $600,000 of GOCo money. … The economics have changed a little bit.”
Quinn said he’s heard talks about a range of prices and values for the 580 acres.
“I think there was concern that the $2 million appraisal was high, given that there was a conservation easement on it and current market conditions,” Quinn said.
He indicated he’d be more willing to talk about a price less than $2 million.
“Clearly, the conservative play is not to commit those dollars today. … At $2 million, I have some reservations about whether that’s the best way to spend our money,” Quinn said. “That may be a lot right now for us to look at for that particular parcel, but it also may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Orton declined to comment on the price.
“That’s under negotiation,” Orton said. “They know what the appraised value is, so we’ll just leave it at that.”