Neighbors oppose land trade


A 640-acre piece of high-elevation forest and meadowland is the topic of a heated debate in central Colorado. The future of the Little Cochetopa Creek School Section near Salida is now in the hands of the State Land Board, and Chaffee County residents worry the board will choose private development over public domain.

A proposed land trade would give ownership of Little Cochetopa to private developer Tom Smith from Kansas City, Mo. Smith would then transfer ownership of his 3,400-acre ranch, located in south-central Colorado's Conejos County, to the state. Tim Heiser, a representative for Smith, says his client has no plans to subdivide the school section. "He wants to put the land into his estate for his kids," Heiser says.

Opponents of the trade say Little Cochetopa is an important elk and deer migration area that provides the only public access to almost 4,500 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property. In an attempt to stall the trade, community members and Chaffee County Commissioners nominated Little Cochetopa for inclusion in the state-run Stewardship Land Trust.

The land-trade proposal, however, was submitted before the land trust nomination, making the nomination void if the trade is approved. Chaffee County resident Ed Rogers says the board should consider the broader effects of the trade. "They need to come here and look at this land," he says. "Don't just sit there and give it away."

The board voiced its support for the land trade at a July 21 meeting, but residents prevented a final decision by acquiring a temporary restraining order against the board.

If the trade goes through, the county and other interested parties may have the chance to buy the development rights to the property - for $540,000. But neighbors Dan Jones and Ide Trotter say public access would be lost, regardless of who owns the development rights.

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