The University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees is now considering purchasing some of the Pilot Hill property, which Albany County has been looking to acquire for the past few years for a price of $10.5 million.
The purchase agreement between Albany County and Doug Samuelson, who owns the roughly 5,500 acres east of Laramie, was amended Thursday to accommodate the continuing efforts by the Office of State Land and Investments to acquire property via a land swap.
The amendment indicates UW will be given a $2 million option-to-buy, and the “location and identity of the lands to be acquired by the University of Wyoming with be agreed to among sellers, UW and OSLI.”
The amendment suggests that, if UW does opt to buy some of the land, the university might “execute a use agreement or lease of the lands acquired by it” to a recreation board that would manage the entire property.
However, UW is not a party to the amendment signed Thursday, nor are the terms written into the amendment binding on the university.
Dave True, who chairs UW’s board of trustees, told the Laramie Boomerang that he still has “no clue as far as timing” as to when the board while decide whether to buy-in to the project.
He said the possibility of UW’s involvement is “a great opportunity” and he’s grateful the Samuelsons are willing to have the university be involved.
The amendment also states that, if UW does choose to buy some of the land, it might exchange that property to OSLI for other state land “contiguous to property currently owned by UW.”
“The purpose for this exchange is to create contiguous ownership of blocks of lands by both UW and the state of Wyoming,” an exhibit to the purchase agreement states. “In the event that any exchange eliminates access to the state trust land acquired by UW under the Pilot Peak Parcels exchanges with the state of Wyoming, UW will agree to convey to (the board) a permanent easement from the state trust land to 45th Street and Boulder Drive.”
True would not say if UW is hoping to acquire to 1,328-acre parcel of state land directly east of the Jacoby Golf Course.
“A lot of different options appear to be out in front of us, and we just really appreciate Doug and Susan to be offering this to us,” True said.
The university’s interest comes as the OSLI’s appraisal process is greatly extending the time it take for the Pilot Hill property to become public land.
Under the original purchase agreement signed in September, Albany County had a year to buy the property.
An initial burst of fundraising led to $850,000 in pledged donations.
However, when OSLI indicated it might be possible to make the land public via a land swap, the purchase agreement was extended to make the closing date March 13, 2019.
Since then, the agency has been working to identify state property that can be traded. Other land-owners aside from the Samuelsons are now being tapped to be brought into the land-swap deal.
Sarah Brown Matthews, who’s helped raise money for the project, told Albany County commissioners that at least 23 different parcels of land are now being considered as being part of the exchange.
In December, Pilot Hill Project chairman Chris Rothfuss, also a state lawmaker out of Laramie, said a completion of the land-swap was likely to happen in April.
But with the OSLI’s process for developing a land swap process taking longer than expected, Albany County and Samuelson agreed Thursday to extend the purchase agreement until March 13, 2020.
Under an updated timeframe for the exchange, OSLI is expected to complete an analysis of the Pilot Hill property by May. This summer, the state agency plans to complete the appraisals of all properties to be included in the swap.
By the end of August, OSLI hopes to also reach agreements of valuation with all parties “willing to acquire or exchange their state trust land inholdings for exchange purposes.”
The tentative time frame included in Thursday’s agreement indicates the State Board of Land Commissioners — Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials — could act on the proposal in December.
The Albany County Commission originally planned to act on the amendment to the purchase agreement at their normal Tuesday meeting. However, its members decided to instead call a special meeting Thursday to finalize the amendment after Commissioner Pete Gosar expressed concern about some of the changes the amendment makes.
Under the amended purchase agreement, covenants mandating public ownership, public access and water protection are still required to be in effect for 50 years, while all other covenants, like those banning development and motor vehicles, need only be imposed for 25 years.
Under the original purchase agreement, Samuelson had requested all covenants be imposed for 50 years.
Gosar wanted to know why those changes were being made, and after Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent talked with Phil Nicholas, who represents the Samuelsons, Trent said Thursday that the 50-year covenants were “hindering to the ability to complete appraisals.”
However, Trent noted that the county would still have the ability to negotiate with the state that regulations be put in place to ensure certain land-use rules are in place.
Even though certain land-use restrictions have been rolled back under the amended agreement, Commissioner Heber Richardson said it’s very unlikely that would effect the eventual use of the property since “it seems like the vision for the use is not very conflicted.”
“If something comes up that needs to be dealt with at some point, (the amended agreement) would give the policy-makers the ability to do that,” he said.
Gosar noted it’s strange that Albany County is still listed as the buyer on the purchase agreement, since the state is now expected to be the eventual owner.
“Yet we are agreeing to things that buyers or sellers agree to … and it seems strange,” he said.
Some residents who’ve pledged donations to the project expressed skepticism of the changes to the purchase agreement.
Laramie resident Bern Hinckley said he felt that, since Albany County appears to have little power to enforce some of the changes to the agreement, it would be more appropriate to simply extend the closing date of the original purchase agreement without changing the terms.
“I also have some concern that this agreement, by sidetracking a lot of folks who have put a lot of effort into this, will lose valuable support in the community,” he said. “This all-of-the-sudden, here’s-a-new-version-at-the-11th-hour, just-sign-here is not the way to do public business.”
Public control of the Pilot Hill landscape is seen as an opportunity to protect the Casper Aquifer, which provides much of Laramie’s drinking water, and provide more recreational access to land that leads into national forest lands.
The Pilot Hill lands extend from Laramie’s east end into the Pole Mountain unit.
A Thursday press release from the Pilot Hill Project Oversight Committee states that the roughly $850,000 garnered in community donations will likely support the initial park development costs.
The committee anticipates needing an additional $700,000 for full development of infrastructure and trail building.
The press release also states that the Pilot Hill committee has also committed to a multi-year effort to reach an endowment goal of more than $3 million, to support ongoing management and maintenance expenses. Multiple prospects to secure these funds have been identified and grant writing efforts are underway.