Park Service finds nemesis in Colo. mansion developer

The view from Tomichi Point in Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park includes sheer canyon cliffs topped with piñon pine and scrub oak forests that tower more than 2,000 feet above the Gunnison River.

That view would also include a 25,000-square-foot mansion if an undisclosed property owner follows through on building plans set in motion by a Colorado businessman.

Real estate broker Tom Chapman this month announced plans to build a luxury residence on a private inholding atop the park's highest point at Signal Hill, "dominating over the entire 30,000-acre" park, according to the developer's website.

The "Casa Barranca II" mansion would be built on part of a 112-acre parcel near the southwest border of the park about a half-mile from the South Rim Campground.

On Tuesday, Chapman sold the proposed mansion property to an out-of-state buyer for an undisclosed price but said he believes the building plans are still in the works.


"They eventually intend to build, as I understand it," Chapman said in a phone interview this morning.

In January, Chapman's 4,754-square-foot "Casa Barranca I," near the canyon's south rim, became the first private luxury residential estate in a national park in the United States. The home comes replete with a five-car garage, a private helipad and an A-Star 350 Model B helicopter, according to the developer's website.

While Casa Barranca I was painted earth tones and blends in fairly well with its surroundings, park officials warn that Casa Barranca II -- or whatever is built in its place -- would be perched atop the park's highest plateau and make a substantial mark on canyon viewsheds.

"It would be seen from [a] good portion of the eastern end of the park," said Dave Roberts, NPS's management assistant for the park and the adjoining Curecanti National Recreation Area. A large home on the site would be visible from the campground, most north rim overlooks and at least two or three south rim overlooks, he said.

While the idea of luxury estates inside national parks has enraged environmentalists and park advocates, Park Service officials say they have no authority to stop such development.

Earlier negotiations to buy the 112-acre property and the Casa Barranca I residence from Chapman unraveled in 2008 when he asked for $14.6 million, far above the Park Service's appraisal of the property, Roberts said. Chapman originally acquired the parcel for $250,000, he said.

"Our number isn't anywhere near his number," he said. "He has essentially told the National Park Service that we'd never agree on a price."

And because the government is prohibited by law from buying land at above-market prices, the only agency that could stop Chapman or other business partners from building homes is Montrose County, which has no rule barring the construction of single-family homes on the properties, said county planning director Steve White.

'Extortion' of the government

Chapman has gained notoriety in the West for buying private inholdings on federal lands and threatening to develop the parcels unless agencies buy him out at inflated prices or trade with him for more valuable inholdings.

In 1984, for example, Chapman threatened to bulldoze a road on the Black Canyon's north rim and build 132 vacation homes before selling the property for $2.1 million, about four times the Park Service's appraisal.

In another well-known case, Chapman began building a luxury log cabin in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia, Colo., but halted construction after striking a deal with the Forest Service to trade the 240-acre property for a separate inholding that ended up selling for four times his original investment.

"It's a form of extortion, and that's how he makes his money," said former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D), who authored the bill in 1999 that turned Black Canyon from a national monument into a national park. "He wants an outrageous price."

"The only way to deal with people like this is a scorched-earth policy," said Ed Marston, former publisher of Paonia-based High Country News. Marston suggested in the late 1990s that the Forest Service clearcut the trees surrounding Chapman's West Elk property in order to devalue his property.

"The only reasons his land has any value is that it's surrounded by wilderness," he said.

Chapman, in an interview with Land Letter, denied charges that he was holding sensitive public lands at ransom for personal gain.

"The Casa Barranca development plans have nothing to do with forcing the federal government to buy a parcel at a higher than market price," he said. "It has everything to do with selling the lands for their correct market value, determined within private markets, instead of the diminished values proposed by the heavy hand of government."

Preemptive conservation

While Chapman appears to be the only developer to have been able to convert Western federal land inholdings into hugely profitable real estate deals, his strategy represents a potential threat to Interior Department efforts to preserve wildlife corridors and boost recreational opportunities on the nation's public lands.

Secretary Ken Salazar last month announced the agency was requesting $620 million in fiscal 2011 funding for the department's Land and Water Conservation Fund, the primary financing vehicle for federal land acquisitions.

The amount represents a 29 percent increase over 2010 funding and builds on the department's goal to return the program to its maximum funding level of $900 million by 2014 after years of precipitous declines.

"I do believe that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has essentially been robbed," Salazar told a Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel last month. "The fact is we lose about 2 million acres of land a year to development. We have seen the decline of many species that are a part of our wildlife."

The initiative appears to have support in Congress, with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) last fall introducing a bill that would assure LWCF permanent annual funding at $900 million.

The Interior Department's 2011 funding request includes $310 million for the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Park Service to acquire private inholdings within their boundaries, an increase of nearly 50 percent over 2010 levels.

About $106 million of the money would help NPS consolidate some of the 2.8 million acres of private inholdings dotting the agency's 84-million-acre system of public lands, said spokesman Jeffrey Olson.

At the top of the service's wish list is a 36,000-acre acquisition in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park. The estimated $7.5 million purchase of private ranches would preserve critical natural and archeological features, including a prized riparian habitat, according to the agency request.

Another project seeks to acquire more than 5,000 acres of ranchland at South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park in order to protect the park's prairie habitat and viewshed.

The boost in funding would come at a critical time and could slow a recent increase in potential developments in national parks, said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for policy at the National Parks Conservation Association.

"We are seeing more frequent examples of the potential for new development within parks because there's no money" available for Interior to purchase them, he said.

And with the real estate market down, federal agencies can do more with taxpayer money than before, Tipton said.

One example is last week's announcement by BLM that it had acquired key parcels adjoining Black Canyon of the Gunnison, possibly preventing the development of a new housing subdivision on a 550-acre inholding, said Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area Manager Karen Tucker. The parcels were acquired in a partnership with the Conservation Fund for $1.4 million using money from LWCF.

"Bringing this inholding into public hands will enhance recreational opportunities in this area and preserve view sheds and critical wildlife habitat," Tucker said in a statement. "The inholding could have been developed as a rural subdivision, which would have changed the character of this area and the adjacent Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park."

Landowners enjoy advantage

At almost every national park, the Park Service has the authority to acquire inholdings at a fair market value using eminent domain, Tipton said.

Black Canyon, however, is a rare exception.

Under a compromise with ranchers and landowners within the park's boundaries, NPS is restrained from using eminent domain authority and can purchase inholdings only from willing sellers.

"It seemed to be the only vehicle to keep peace with all the other landowners who didn't want condemnation in the bill," said Nighthorse Campbell.

Consequently, purchasing the Casa Barranca sites and five privately held parcels in Black Canyon depend less on Park Service funding and more on the government's ability to negotiate with landowners, said Roberts.

"The problem is not getting the funds, it is finding a reasonable price within NPS appraisals," Roberts said, adding that he is unaware of any recent communications between the park and Chapman.

While federal law bars the agency from buying parcels at above-market prices, Olson said the parcels could be purchased if a conservation group offers to pay the difference between the market value and asking price. Such transactions, however, would require the joint consent of House and Senate appropriators, he said.

Meanwhile, conservation groups say they are relieved more people have not adopted Chapman's business strategy.

"The fact that someone is trying to blackmail the federal government is unfortunate," said Suzanne Jones, regional director of the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies region.

Acquisition of property within public lands is designed to be a win-win for the owner and the public at large, she said, but Chapman's tactics are a perversion of the process.

"The need to consolidate land ownership and look at landscape-level management is visionary and overdue," she said. "Not everyone is trying to take the system for a ride."

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