Pitkin County to acquire Wheatley Open Space

ASPEN (June 23, 2014) - Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has placed 105 acres along the Roaring Fork River at the lower end of Snowmass Canyon under contract for $1.95 million, preserving ranchlands that have remained largely intact for more than a century.


The purchase of Wheatley Open Space will go to Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday, June 25 for the first of two required approvals. A public hearing is scheduled July 9.


The acquisition will protect part of the historic Wheatley Ranch – a property that has seen little change since the 1880s, when Irishman John Edward Wheatley began ranching along the Roaring Fork River in a narrow valley marked by distinctive red hillsides sloping sharply upward to the north. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad paralleled the river through the property, and a spur known as the Wheatley siding allowed area ranchers to load their goods onto the train at the Wheatley Ranch.

John and then nephew William E. Wheatley farmed the property until 1938, when the younger Wheatley sold the property to Laurent Arbaney Sr., who built the existing farmhouse at the site for his son, Laurent Jr. and his wife, Irena. The land remained in the Arbaney family until Peter and Janelli Dart acquired it in 1960. Under Dart ownership, the Arbaneys continued to ranch on the property into the 1970s.


“We’ve tried to be good stewards,” said J. Dart. “From the family’s perspective, we are thrilled with the opportunity to have a portion of the property become public land.”

“This property is familiar to anyone who travels through Snowmass Canyon,” said Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director. “Thanks to a series of longtime owners, most recently the Darts, it remains an undeveloped gem right next to the Roaring Fork River.”


The Rio Grande Trail, Lower River Road and the Roaring Fork River all cut through the property; Highway 82 follows the river on its south bank. Herds of elk are a common sight on Wheatley Open Space for a few weeks each spring.


Pitkin County and the Darts recently forged a deal to split the ranch, allowing the county to purchase the lower end of the property, east of the Lower River Road bridge over the Roaring Fork at Old Snowmass. The open space encompasses land on both sides of the river, including an irrigated meadow and Wheatley Gulch, where the old Wheatley family cemetery is tucked into the trees. Water rights are also part of the deal.


The purchase eliminates the potential for a home of up to 8,250 square feet in a scenic meadow at the bottom of Snowmass Canyon. The Dart family will retain the upper piece of the ranch, a property that contains the old Wheatley schoolhouse, built in 1911, log buildings that date back to the Wheatley homestead days and the Arbaney farmhouse, apparently constructed in the late 1930s. All of the structures have been designated as historic by Pitkin County. In addition, a building site for an 8,250-square-foot home exists on 161 acres retained by the Darts.


Open Space and Trails acknowledged the importance of the Dart property early on in the open space program’s history, Will noted. In 1997, the county and Aspen Valley Land Trust acquired a conservation easement on 292 acres for $1.4 million to protect the natural, ecological, wildlife habitat, scenic, historic, agricultural and aesthetic features of the property. The appraised value of the easement at that time was $2.2 million.  This easement had left two developable homesites, one of which will be retired under the county’s ownership. 


The 1997 conservation easement allowed fishing for up to six individuals at a time, but anglers were required to first sign in and pick up a card from Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt, and access the river was limited to the Highway 82 side. The conservation easement also established a pullout and rest area for noncommercial boaters along the river. River access will be revisited under a management plan following the purchase.


Contact: Matt Adeletti

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Acquisition Manager

matt.adeletti@pitkincounty.com or 970-429-2796

Posted on Monday, June 23, 2014