Pitkin County open space may expand | SteamboatToday.com

Pitkin County open space may expand

Economy could leave speculators overextended, seeking to sell

Katie Redding/The Aspen Times

— At least one entity may be a winner in the real estate downturn – Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

It would stand to reason that overextended speculators who have vacant land with conservation value would contact the department, said the program’s director, Dale Will. Not only is the county in a position to make acquisitions, he said, but the sales could benefit the public good.

This year, the 19-year-old department has roughly $7 million to spend on land that meets open space criteria. Meanwhile, Realtor and former Pitkin County Commissioner Shellie Roy confirmed sales of land to private citizens have slowed in the valley, alongside sales of houses and “everything else.”

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that since the end of this past summer, Pitkin County Open Space and Sales has seen an increase in calls from interested sellers, according to Will.

Although he was careful to note that it’s hard to make assumptions about motivations, Will attributed at least some of the rise in interested sellers to the current economic downturn.

“A lot of the deals we’ve done this year are people who’ve watched the credit market and decided, for whatever reason, that open space is the best option they have,” Will said.

He noted that at least one property under review – “a very nice piece of open space” – is directly tied to the crash of the credit market.

Unlike many would-be buyers right now, Pitkin County has money. In contrast to the more volatile open space funds in the Front Range, which are funded by sales tax, the Pitkin County Open Space real estate fund comes from property taxes, said Will.

In addition, there is a two-year lag between property valuation and open-space tax collection. So even if property values start to decline, Pitkin County will be collecting taxes based on the high valuations of the real estate boom for two more years. Such a design was deliberate, said Tim McFlynn, co-founder and current trustee of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board.

“If [land] values go down,” Will said, “there will be a year or two when we’re in a very strong position.”

And Will pointed out that in addition to securing open space, the county could end up helping, in a small way with the credit crisis itself – by taking property from those who are overextended and creating publicly owned assets that will appreciate forever.

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