Landowner Jerry Jake Dalla enjoys Horse Gulch in much the same way that hundreds of others do: He walks the trails, lets his dog run free and hunts wildlife with a camera and binoculars.
The only difference is he owns this land.
I spend a lot of time up here, and every time Im thankful that I owned it for a while, he said last week during a tour of his 430 acres in Horse Gulch.
City officials call it Durangos Central Park. Dalla calls it my little piece of heaven.
Dalla has decided hes ready to sell his slice of paradise and would happily have it go to the city, but so far the city isnt biting.
Recently Dalla made a move that could bring officials to the table: He listed two 35-acre parcels of his property for sale for $725,000.
The message seems clear: No deal and someday a chunk of Durangos Central Park could become someone elses backyard.
The undeveloped valley southeast of Fort Lewis College has long been valued for its scenic views, diverse wildlife and 80 miles of dirt trails.
It is a patchwork of private and city-owned land. The city has been working to acquire the open space in Horse Gulch as it becomes available in order to preserve the publics playground into the future.
So far, it has purchased 1,105 acres, including 945 acres within the last two years. The cost: $4 million, or about $3,640 per acre.
The $750,000 he is seeking for the two 35-acre parcels is about six times more than what the city has been paying for open space in Horse Gulch.
City Manager Ron LeBlanc said he was unaware of the listings but added that it might be time to meet with Dalla to discuss his plans.
Dalla, 63, was born and raised in Durango. He bought property in Horse Gulch about two decades ago when the city was planning to expand landfill operations in the area, he said.
Several 35-acre parcels have been sold for residential development. A flier for his most recent listings reads: Spectacular homesites in Horse Gulch Ranches. Rare opportunity to live in Durangos Central Park.
Dalla, like other property owners in Horse Gulch, has allowed the public to access the trails that cross his land. A couple of years ago, he provided a temporary and renewable easement along Raider Ridge for nothing in return.
Its too nice of a view to keep from people if theyre not hurting it, Dalla said.
The easement allowed Trails 2000, a local trail-building advocacy group, to build a connection from the north side of Durango to Horse Gulch.
Its an important connector, said Mary Monroe, director of Trails 2000. It kind of brings everything together from the north end to the south end.
The city has identified Dallas property as desirable for future open-space preservation. His property line abuts with city property in several locations, and trails cross both properties intermittently. Dallas land is located immediately north of city-owned land.
Dalla said hes interested in working with the city on a deal, but he wants to make sure the property is maintained.
That ranch is kind of like my backyard, he said. I would like it to be maintained in perpetuity by people who care.
Private property owners generally take care of their land; the same is not always true for public ownership, he said.
I can put it into private ownership and pretty much guarantee 100 years from now its still pretty neat and nice to look at, he said.
Dalla said he and the city also appear to be far apart on value of the land. They have never sat down to negotiate prices, however.
I want some value from a business standpoint, but value isnt everything its predicated on, Dalla said. Im a businessman, but I dont have to own a Learjet.
Waiting at the bargaining table
With the assistance of state grants, the city has spent $12.6 million since 1994 on open-space preservation, including $4.6 million paid in 2005 to Dalla for 178 acres known as Dalla Mountain Park.
It is by far the highest price paid for a single acquisition in the last 16 years, and Dalla applied pressure to get it, including threatening to develop and sending a bulldozer to cut a road through the property.
Dalla said the city hasnt done much to maintain or improve Dalla Mountain Park. It is difficult to find information about the property on the citys website, and the parking area needs improvement.
Every other park is well documented, he said.
Dalla said he offered to spend $25,000 on a sculpture that would complement the base area of Dalla Mountain Park, but city officials didnt like the design and shrugged it off. He wanted the sculpture to include a plaque that would honor his parents, Jerry and Antoinette Dalla, who also were born and raised in the area.
I wanted something that would cast my folks name in stone, so to speak, he said.
LeBlanc said he is familiar with Dallas sculpture idea and supports installing it.
I think its a great idea, he said. Id like to just get it done.
Dalla said hes in no hurry to strike a deal on the Horse Gulch property. But hed like to know if it is going to end up in public or private ownership.
I dont have a reason to sell it tomorrow, but I have a desire to figure out what its ultimate disposition might be, he said.
Dalla said he is flexible in making deals with the city. Hes willing to sell all or part of the land. He is also willing to set up a 10-year payment plan with the city if thats what it wants, he said.
Im not going to donate this to the public, so to speak, but I would work at putting it in their hands, Dalla said. Im more than willing to make them a deal.
Id like to get to the bargaining table.