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The public faces land access issues everywhere

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A conservation easement ensures the public can still access Strawberry Fields in Colorado Springs. - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • A conservation easement ensures the public can still access Strawberry Fields in Colorado Springs.

Back in 2014, a retired physicist sued Oprah Winfrey's Yellow Brick Road company, claiming that it made an under-the-radar deal — connected with the purchase of land in Telluride for the star's new mountainside mansion — to cut off trails his family and neighbors had accessed for years.

In his complaint, Charles Goodman claims that just before selling the land to Winfrey's company, the previous owners submitted a corrected map that purposely omitted trail easements previously granted to Goodman, his family and neighbors. The hastily submitted document didn't go through the proper approval process, he said.

San Miguel County District Judge Steven Patrick dismissed the case, saying it should have been filed in municipal court and that there was little case law to support Goodman's claims. The company did tell The Denver Post in 2014 that it would work with the plaintiffs on a mutually favorable usage plan.

On the West Coast, California's beachfront billionaires have faced similar issues. But unlike Colorado, in California, state law protects public access to one kind of public land: the beach.

One high-profile case involved Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla, who argued he shouldn't have to get the state's permission to gate off a public beach next to his property. The case threatened to unravel California's decades-old Coastal Access Act, which says the public has a right to access beaches, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in October — bringing the years-long feud to an end and delivering a victory to beach-goers.

Carolyn Cathey, a local real estate agent, says she's never encountered a property that advertised exclusive access to public trails or open space in the Pikes Peak region. However, proximity to public land can be a major selling point. A regional listing service, for example, featured 184 properties that had "backs to open space" as an amenity.

"It gives the appearance or the feel of a larger property," Cathey says. "People really, really like that."

National organizations such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and local ones like Palmer Land Trust work to open easements on private land so that hunters, fishers and hikers can traverse it to get to public land for recreation. The latter organization secured a conservation easement in the Strawberry Fields-Broadmoor land swap that helped assuage some concerns from outdoor advocates by ensuring the public could still access the property when it was traded by the city to The Broadmoor for other lands.

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