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Town buys properties for Riverwalk project

In a move that could end over 30 years of half-starts and missed opportunities, the Pagosa Springs Town Council decided last Friday to purchase plats along the San Juan River equalling 1.44 acres that would allow for the completion of the Riverwalk and potentially put an end to the “Trail to Nowhere” pejorative.

Late last week, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon called a special meeting for Friday morning to discuss terms of the property’s purchase. “I generally don’t lead discussions, I don’t like to do that,” he said, “but this time, I think it’s imperative.”

While expressing regret concerning the economy and its effect on property values, Aragon added, “Maybe this is a godsend ... we should be glad we can complete this (the Riverwalk) in good time.”

Indeed, it could have well been the economy that led to the change in fortunes for the town and its desire to complete the Riverwalk project.

In October 2008, the town began negotiating with the owners of two small parcels of land, located just southwest of The Springs Resort and bisected by the San Juan River, known as the Watters property. At that time, the town offered $200,000 for the parcels; owners answered with a $500,000 counteroffer for the properties.

At that point, negotiations reached a stalemate and the issue was not revisited until earlier this summer.

According to Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem, attempts were made to contact representatives for the Watters Family Trust several months ago, resulting in no response. However, another attempt made two weeks ago caught the attention of the property owners.

Mitchem told council that, in those discussions, the town offered $110,000 for the properties. That offer was responded to with a $121,550 counter — an amount Mitchem and the mayor believed was reasonable.

It was with that offer — almost $80,000 less than what the town had originally proposed and about $380,000 less than the 2008 price tag that had shut down previous discussions.

Presenting the newest offer to council, Mitchem stated that contrary to usual procedures (where the buyer first sign a contract), the sellers had signed the contract and, so committed to the $121,550 sale price.

Mitchem explained that the contract had been examined by the town’s legal counsel and the contract had been returned with a few changes, the largest being that a “Phase I Environmental Assessment” be conducted prior to the contract’s Nov. 1 deadline, protecting the town from potential costly cleanup requirements.

Mitchem stated he was confident that the assessment could be completed before the deadline.

Mitchem also stated that, “There are ample reserves to fulfill this transaction,” indicating that money for purchasing the property would come out of capital improvement reserves.

Council had few questions, apparently given the sweetheart deal offered to the town. Trustee Shari Pierce asked if any deed restrictions had been attached to the property (to which Mitchem replied none existed), then stated some concerns with the availability of easements since the property is an inholding surrounded by land currently owned by The Springs Resort.

“There’s every indication they’re (The Springs Resort) willing to follow through,” Mitchem said.

“So, what would it take to get those easements in writing?” Pierce asked, stating that she preferred council to wait until easements could be acquired with a formal agreement.

Seemingly exasperated, Aragon said, “I just want to say, I’m frustrated. I just want to finish this. We’ve worked too hard for too long to get to this point.”

Mitchem added that, “We could not acquire those easements by November first.”

Hoping to allay Pierce’s concerns, Town Planner James Dickhoff reported that the owners of The Springs Resort had assured him that the town’s acquisition of the Watters property was, to them, a desired outcome and that easements would be assured.

“The owners are very much on board with this,” he said.

“I think your discussions with The Springs Resort will be very productive, once we’ve purchased this property,” added trustee Stan Holt.

The Springs Resort had likewise made an offer on the Watters property in 2006, with the Watters Family Trust’s counteroffer set at just over $900,000.

Although The Springs Resort has made it known several times that it desired the Watters’ inholding, the resort owners scoffed at the price that was offered. Since 2008, owners of The Springs Resort made it clear that town acquisition of the property was a desirable outcome and representatives from the resort had been actively involved in the town’s 2008 negotiations for the property.

Trustee Kathie Lattin asked Mitchem what kind of time frame and expense the town could expect for the completion of the Riverwalk trail system, should the purchase go through.

“Two to three years,” Mitchem replied, explaining that grants would be pursued for completion of the project.

Mitchem told Lattin and the rest of the council that a pedestrian bridge (down river from the bridge near the county courthouse) would be required, with an estimated cost of $300,000, but that he had no estimate for the rest of the trail system.

In 2008, former interim Town Manager Tamra Allen estimated that completion costs for the entire project would amount to just over $1.2 million; at 2008 costs and minus completed portions of the project, the current estimate would probably be around $800,000. Those costs would include the additional bridge (close to the Sixth Street bend of the San Juan River) and necessary elevated walkways through designated wetlands.

Despite reservations regarding guarantees for easements, Pierce made a motion to purchase the Watters property, using money from Capital Improvement reserves, not to exceed the negotiated $121,550 price.

With a second by trustee Don Volger, council approved the land deal with a unanimous vote.

While the contract awaits scrutiny by legal council on both sides of the table, it is expected that a final deal will be ready by the November Town Council meeting. If the deal is finalized at that time, the “Trail to Nowhere” could finally start going somewhere.

jim@pagosasun.com