Public input sought for Thompson Divide withdrawal proposal
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) jointly released a draft environmental assessment for the requested Thompson Divide withdrawal in Pitkin as well as Garfield and Gunnison counties for a 30-day public comment period.
“This comment period offers the public an important opportunity to participate in the evaluation of this requested withdrawal,” said Rocky Mountain Regional Forester Frank Beum. “This requested withdrawal of the Thompson Divide area is in response to a strong interest from a diverse stakeholder group, including hunters, ranchers, conservation groups, and local governments.”
Last year, the Biden administration announced steps to conserve the Thompson Divide area due to broad concerns about its important wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands, and clean air and water. If the withdrawal is approved, the requested action would pull 224,713 acres of USFS and BLM-managed lands from settlement, sale, location, or entry under the public land laws; location and entry under the United States mining laws; and leasing under the mineral leasing, mineral materials, and geothermal leasing laws for up to 20 years, subject to valid existing rights.
USFS and BLM will host a virtual public meeting from 6-7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 18. The meeting will include a short presentation explaining the requested withdrawal and draft environmental assessment, a question-and-answer session, and information on how to submit public comments.
Register for the virtual public meeting at bit.ly/4878ZFV. To request accommodations or for inquiries about accessibility, please contact Olivia Blake at 970-200-6195 or email@example.com.
More information about the requested withdrawal and how to submit comments is available at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=63679. Comments on the draft environmental assessment should be directed to USFS and will be accepted through Jan. 8, 2024.
Action but not ‘formal action’ on Glenwood Springs’ city manager resignation
The resignation of former Glenwood Springs City Manager Dr. Beverli Marshall earlier this year resulted from informal action taken in an executive session, Mayor Pro Tem Marco Dehm said in court on Thursday.
“Action was taken to direct negotiations,” he said. “It was not a formal action.”
Former Glenwood City Council member and current 9th Judicial District Attorney Tony Hershey recently filed a lawsuit alleging the city of Glenwood Springs has not cooperated in releasing details over an executive session it conducted during an Aug. 10 special session. He also claims that city leaders took action during the executive session, which was called to address the city manager’s contract.
After the Aug. 10 meeting ended with no public vote by city council, then-city manager Beverli Marshall was placed on administrative leave. According to an automatic email response by her, hired in January 2023 at a $215,000 salary plus a $2,000 per-month housing allowance, she stated, “I am no longer employed by the City of Glenwood Springs. Please contact Steve Boyd,” open records requests show.
City Council formally accepted her resignation during a public meeting on Aug. 17. The city also agreed to give her more than $85,000 in severance pay. Since then, the city hired Boyd as its new city manager on a two-year, $215,000 contract.
According to Colorado Sunshine law detailing executive session standards, a “board may not reach any informal decision on a matter that is then rubber-stamped during the subsequent public session.”
Dehm was subpoenaed to appear as a witness before Judge Elise Myer on Thursday. He was examined by Hershey’s attorney Kathy Goudy, who argued “no such vote occurred after the special session” until Aug. 17.
“These things cannot be done in affirmation or in secret,” Goudy said.
During her examination of Dehm, Dehm said he joined Glenwood Springs Mayor Ingrid Wussow in meeting with Marshall on Aug. 11 — the day after the executive session.
“I do recall madam mayor calling me, saying, ‘You’re coming with me,'” Dehm said.
Dehm said he and Wussow presented Marshall two options on Aug. 11: either resign discreetly or do it in a public meeting. Pressed on whether a decision was made during the executive session the previous day, Dehm said city leaders informally decided to come up with strategies for Marshall’s resignation.
Despite her auto email response saying she was no longer employed by Glenwood Springs, Dehm claimed on Thursday that he did not have any knowledge of her resignation prior to the Aug. 17 Glenwood Springs City Council meeting. He did, however, admit that he knew Marshall had essentially cleared out her office on Aug. 11, except for a few items.
“She packed her stuff and walked out,” Dehm said.
Attorney Shoshana Rosenthal of Karp Neu Hanlon, P.C., which represents the city, argued any open records requests over details of the Aug. 10 executive session should be denied because it’s protected by attorney-client privilege. She also repeatedly objected to many of Goudy’s examination questions directed toward Dehm because of the same argument.
“City Council needed a private space to discuss matters on Marshall,” Rosenthal said, adding that City Attorney Karl Hanlon was present during the executive session, which was intended to negotiate her position. “Dr. Marshall provided, in writing, she wanted an executive session.”
“Dr. Marshall going on leave does not constitute a formal action,” Rosenthal added.
Myer said the court would take the city’s objection to releasing executive session details on a “step-by-step” basis throughout court proceedings.
The case is slated to continue in court at 8:30 a.m. on Friday in District Court in Glenwood Springs.
With Coloradans set to see surging property taxes in 2024, governor pushes local entities to provide relief
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct information about Colorado Mountain College’s proposed mill reduction.
During an appearance at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge on Thursday, Nov. 30, he called on taxing entities across the state to lower their local tax rates amid what is certain to be a significant spike in property tax bills due in 2024.
“Property owners are looking to their local elected officials for help, for reduction,” he said. “An increase (in taxes) next year would increase the cost of living, which is the opposite of what we want … I know our local districts will step up.”
Yet some special districts, which include fire safety and water providers, have interpreted the governor’s call to action as the state overstepping into local government decisions.
“I’m confident that special districts are more than capable of assessing their needs and governing their finances without encouragement from the governor,” said Ann Terry, the executive director of the Special District Association of Colorado, which represents about 2,600 special districts in the state.
During Thursday’s event in Breckenridge, Polis pointed to Colorado Mountain College as an example of a district lowering its tax rate, known as a mill levy. A mill is a $1 payment on every $1,000 of assessed value that is factored into property taxes and which generates revenue for entities such as county governments and schools, as well as water and fire districts. Mills can both be set by these entities or approved by voters for certain purposes.
The request comes after Polis signed Senate Bill 1, a law passed during the legislature’s special session that will cut the statewide assessment rate for property taxes due next year from 6.765% to 6.7% and allow up to $55,000 of a home’s value to be exempt from taxation. The legislation closely models Proposition HH, the ballot proposal for tax relief that failed at the ballot box in early November, which prompted the special session.
Over the past two years, home values have increased 40% on average statewide, while in mountain resort communities increases have been as high as 92%, according to a Colorado Department of Local Affairs database
The tax relief passed during the special session means that local districts will have less revenue in their budgets than expected from the surge in property values. Senate Bill 1 did require that the state use $200 million in general fund dollars to make school, fire, hospital, and EMS districts’ budgets whole but many other districts won’t receive any funding.
The bill also created a mechanism to backfill some slower-growing counties. Many Western Slope counties — like Summit, Eagle, and Pitkin— won’t qualify to have any of that revenue replaced.
In an interview with the Summit Daily News, Polis said despite the relief provided through the November special session, local districts will still be taking in significantly more revenue because of the huge surge in valuations.
“I totally understand that many special districts may say, ‘Well our costs went up 18%, maybe even 20%.’ But you start with what inflation was, you look at how your costs went up and how you can defend that to voters, and then reach a conclusion about what level of relief you can provide,” he said.
‘Every local government has a different operating reality’
Legislation passed earlier this year by state lawmakers grants special districts and other taxing entities the ability to temporarily lower their mill before restoring it without voter approval, something Polis said allows districts “to secure their future” whilst “providing relief now.”
Colorado Mountain College’s board of trustees said it plans to reduce its mill levy next year to a rate that will secure revenue at a 2022 level in addition to the rate of inflation. The college has a mill of 4.017 across all eight counties where it operates.
According to Brian Barker, director of marketing and media relations, the college does not yet know how much of a mill reduction that will equal. He stated in an email it is likely to mean that the taxes home and commercial properties pay to the college will be about 25% less than what it would have been without a mill adjustment.
The college “has the good fortune to operate in communities that have been very supportive of our mission, which has allowed the college to be ready for normal economic ups and downs,” he said in a statement.
He continued: “Every local government has a different operating reality. We believe it’s best for the leaders of those entities to make decisions in the best interest of their missions and taxpayers.”
Aspen Fire Protection District also plans to decrease its mills to return a total of $1 million to homeowners in its district, said Jake Andersen, deputy chief of operations for the district.
Eagle County is leaning toward temporarily lowering its mill levy to match the increase in inflation level over the past two years, said Commissioner Matt Scherr.
“That does seem to be the budget we’re favoring so I think that’s likely but it hasn’t been determined yet,” he said.
That decrease on its own, like many of the other districts’ mill levy cuts, won’t make a significant difference to homeowner’s property taxes. Many homes are subject to several different taxing entities.
Other entities are undecided
Other districts, like the Steamboat Springs School District and Grand County, are waiting until early January to decide if they will reduce their mills.
Pitkin County’s mill levy increase is already limited by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment in Colorado that limits government spending. Other counties have “debruced,” allowing them to keep revenue above that limit.
The Summit County government has considered an average reduction of 4.4% across all its mills, which total 19.809, in its 2024 budget. By county officials estimates, this could create an additional $22 in property tax relief for a $1.1 million home. By comparison, the relief offered by the legislature’s new tax law could mean over $200 in savings for that same Summit County home.
“If that $22 is that important to residents, then I’m willing to give them that,” Commissioner Nina Waters told the Summit Daily News on Thursday. “But that means that there’s a large portion of our lower-income residents who are going to be suffering that loss,” because of potential cuts to services.
She said she is undecided on whether to support a mill levy reduction in the county’s proposed 2024 budget, which must be adopted by Jan. 10. Summit’s commissioners have also signaled that even if the county did reduce its mill levies, without buy-in from other entities, little relief would trickle down to homeowners.
That’s because only one-third of the total mill levy revenue collected by property owners in Summit goes to the county government. Another third goes to the Summit School District while the rest is dispersed between dozens of special districts, including Colorado Mountain College.
Some groups say they need the additional revenue
In Summit County, other districts have signaled they’re all but certain they won’t lower their mill levies.
Summit Fire & EMS spokesperson Steve Lipsher said the district, which receives 87% of its funding through property taxes, is not planning to lower its mill. Part of that is to pay for capital improvements to existing facilities as well as the construction of a new fire station in Silverthorne, the bulk of which is expected to be completed in 2024 and which Lipsher called “a substantial financial commitment.”
Rather than address property relief at the local level, he said he was interested to see how lawmakers look for more long-term solutions through state policy.
“Let’s see what happens when they take a longer, more deliberative approach with coming up with some sort of a permanent fix,” he said.
At the Red, White & Blue Fire District in Breckenridge, “We have steadily been approaching expenditures outpacing revenue,” according to co-interim fire chief Drew Hoehn, who added that the seemingly ever-changing landscape of tax policy in Colorado “compels us to save for the constant ebb and flow of legislative-driven hardship.”
Summit School District Chief Financial Officer Kara Drake stated in October that even though the district is expected to see major gains in revenue from property taxes next year, much of that will be offset by a cut in state funding, which can happen when property taxes rise.
The district is estimating a property tax increase of $45.1 million in its general fund this school year, up from just over $33 million the year before. At the same time, state revenue for the fund will have decreased from $10.6 million to $2.8 million.
Polis, in response to questions from the Summit Daily News, said his push for mill levy reductions is mostly targeted at high-cost communities such as Summit, Eagle, and Pitkin counties, where home values have risen between 63% and 92% on average.
He called Senate Bill 1 “a baseline of relief for everybody” but said he hopes taxiing entities will build on that relief by “doing something, even if it’s small.”
Vail Resorts to acquire another Swiss ski resort
Vail Resorts has entered into an agreement to acquire its 42nd ski area, Crans-Montana Mountain Resort in Switzerland, the company announced Thursday.
In a deal that has been in the works for several months, the corporation will purchase an 84% ownership stake in Remontées Mécaniques Crans Montana Aminona SA, the company that controls and operates the lifts and supporting mountain operations at Crans-Montana.
The purchase is part of an ongoing growth strategy that is simultaneously focused on both European acquisitions and a reduction of the company’s net-operating footprint, Vail Resorts CEO Kirsten Lynch said in a statement issued on Thursday.
“Our acquisition of the resort aligns to our growth strategy of expanding our resort network in Europe, creating even more value for our pass holders and guests around the world,” she said in the statement. “We share many values with the Crans-Montana community, including a commitment to environmental responsibility and reducing our net-operating footprint.”
She described Crans-Montana as an iconic ski destination in the heart of the Swiss Alps, with a unique heritage, incredible terrain, passionate team, and a community dedicated to the region’s success.
“We look forward to investing to support the growth, sustainability, and vitality of the resort and region,” she said. “We care deeply about the guest experience and are committed to working with the community, listening and learning from local partners and the resort’s dedicated teams.”
Second Swiss acquisition in two years
The Crans-Montana deal marks Vail Resorts’ second Swiss ski area acquisition in as many years, with the company also acquiring Andermatt-Sedrun in 2022.
While Crans-Montana will not be included on Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass for the 2023-24 season, officials announced on Thursday that it will be included for 2024-25. The Epic Pass also includes five days at Verbier4Vallées in Switzerland and seven days at Les 3 Vallées in France.
Another World Cup/World Championships venue
The news comes as Vail Resorts’ Beaver Creek property hosts its annual Alpine World Cup event, which was — before the Crans-Montana acquisition — the only Alpine World Cup venue in Vail Resorts’ portfolio.
While the Beaver Creek Birds of Prey event is a men’s World Cup competition, this year’s Crans-Montana races are women’s events, consisting of super-G and downhill competitions.
The women’s Alpine World Cup circuit is currently in Canada before heading to Europe next week. The women will race in Switzerland, France, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, Germany, and Andorra before heading to Crans-Montana, Feb. 14-18.
Crans-Montana will also host the Alpine World Ski Championships in 2027, an ever-other-year event that Vail Resorts last hosted in 2015 at Beaver Creek. Crans-Montana officials, in a statement issued on Thursday, expressed confidence in Vail Resorts’ ability to pull off a good event in 2027.
“Vail Resorts as new owner of the ski area will also have a positive impact on the organization of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in 2027 at Crans-Montana,” the Association of the Municipality of Crans-Montana Board of Directors said Thursday.
On the Fly: Use the winter downtime to get organized
I ran into a customer at the grocery store yesterday who told me once it gets this cold, he’s just not interested in fishing. I know how he feels and tend to agree with him (somewhat), but there are things we can all do to fuel our fishing addictions when frigid temperatures arrive.
The first thing that comes to mind is organization and preparation. Even the most fastidious fisher could organize their flies, for example. If you have the space, laying all of your boxes out and putting things back in order can be quite a task, and there’s no better time than now.
Some people organize their flies by river, others by “family.” For those who like to organize by family, think about boxes dedicated to midges, streamers, green drakes, pale morning duns, blue winged olives, caddis, stoneflies, craneflies, sallies, terrestrials, and lake flies. For those who like to organize by river, your Fryingpan box should consist of your mysis patterns, slim and beadless nymphs, plus midges and BWOs. Your Roaring Fork and Colorado boxes should house your beaded nymphs, stoneflies, and yellow sallies. Lake boxes should hold your damselflies, ants, leeches, and small streamers.
Personally, I like to house my bugs that hatch on all rivers in boxes dedicated solely to PMDs, drakes and, caddis by themselves. You can go further down the rabbit hole and house your larger, hi-vis patterns in one box and your smaller and subtler match-the-hatch patterns in others. Everyone needs a “meat locker,” loaded with all colors and sizes of streamers. What I personally employ is one big box that I borrow from, a few at a time, into a smaller fly box.
If your flies are already organized, perhaps it’s time to fix your leaky waders, add new studs to your wading boots, send your broken rods in for repair, or make a list of flies you need to tie. Happy (almost) winter to all, and keep an eye out for those warm days we get once in a while. Fish have to eat every day!
This report is provided every week by Taylor Creek Fly Shops in Aspen and Basalt. Taylor Creek can be reached at 970-927-4374 or TaylorCreek.com.
New norm for uniforms: Vail Resorts rolls out employee-designed kits with an eye toward the future
By now, you may have noticed a new look among staffers at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek resorts.
Gone are the days of the spectrum of colors guests once saw on the mountain. Vail Resorts has rolled out a new line of Helly Hansen jackets and pants for employees that are, for lack of a better term, more uniform across the company.
Mountain safety is still in yellow, maintenance workers are still in black, but managers and ski patrollers will now be in crimson-over-black jackets with black pants, while all other operations workers will be in a simple blue-over-black uniform. The old gray jackets, affectionately known as “Siberian special forces,” are now a thing of the past along with the green “EPICkles” and all other same-color pant-and-jacket kits.
Jeff Babb, senior director of Resort Operations for Vail Mountain, has been working on Vail Resorts’ uniforms since 2010, when a request for proposal was first put out for outerwear brands to design uniforms for the company’s thousands of on-mountain employees.
Making it simple
One of the main motivators for the effort was, simply, finding a pair of pants that workers wouldn’t complain about.
“Pants are the biggest pain point,” Babb said.
But there’s a lot more to it, including that full spectrum of colors you once saw among employees.
“One of the reasons we did this was to get rid of all of these different colors,” Babb said. “That was part of our conversation with Helly as we looked at this new program — we really thought that the guest doesn’t particularly care what color things are, they just want to find an employee; so we’ve made the garments where they are easily recognizable with the big logos, so that a guest can find an employee and get their issue resolved.”
Reducing the carbon footprint of the process also played a major role in the uniform overhaul. He says if you really want to be sustainable, then you need to take care of your gear and use it for a long time. So he got to work on a program that will include regular tune-ups to keep gear lasting long and an end-of-life process that ensures that the gear will be reused in other products once it has outlived its useful life as an all-weather garment.
Helly Hansen presented itself as an attractive option for Vail Resorts through its partnership with Recircled, a Denver-based company with a plant in Sidney, Nebraska, that deconstructs old uniforms and turns them into countertops and construction insulation.
Helly Hansen’s European roots made the company appealing when it came to the carbon footprint, Babb said.
“Being a European-based company, the European standards are a little ahead of our standards in the United States, so Helly Hansen had already been working diligently to meet the European standards — the Bluesign standards, et cetera — that existed in Europe,” he said. “So they were a little ahead of the game already.”
He said the new uniforms — which consist of a jacket, pants, a mid layer, and in some cases, a utility vest — are made with some recycled materials and will be 100% recyclable at the end of their useful life through the Recircled facility in Nebraska.
Putting the kits to the test
Helly Hansen was also responsive to feedback, Babb said, meeting with him on a monthly basis to incorporate Vail Resorts’ suggestions into the new designs. Feedback came from Vail Resorts workers who put the uniforms to the test and reported back to Babb, he said.
During the winter of 2022-23, Vail Resorts maintenance workers and ski patrollers tried out the garments at 17 different resorts.
“We had the manufacturer send us about 150 kits worth of test garments, and we put those on employees across our enterprise,” Babb said. “We wanted to make sure we covered all of our geographic regions as they’re obviously different, to hopefully garner as much feedback as we can for different resorts, for different regions and different climates. We asked those employees to fill out a report for us on a weekly basis.”
When the ski season ended in North America, the testing continued in Australia, he said. And at the end of it, they were able to work together to engineer pants that fit everyone.
“The fit was our biggest hurdle because garments are very personal, how they fit and how they work, so a uniform program has to be kind of dynamic,” he said. “We incorporated a great amount of adjustability into our pants for our uniforms; the pants can be very easily lengthened, the pants can be very easily shortened, they have quite a bit of adjustment in the waist, plus with a new fabric that is more payable, more conforming and even has a little bit of stretch to it in some instances and allows for a greater range of fit for different body types.”
Of course, there were many other modifications made to the various Helly Hansen garments as a result of Vail Resorts’ feedback, as well. Design elements like a gusset on the neck, a walkie-talkie antenna holder, and loops for radios were also added, to name a few.
One of Babb’s favorite elements is called a life pocket which, for some, really lives up to its name.
“It’s an insulated pocket for your cell phone or your radio, but we’ve even had a few employees who need insulin pumps, and that life pocket allows those insulin pumps to stay warm and perform more efficiently,” he said.
For this year, the company has implemented the new uniforms at its five Colorado resorts, along with Whistler-Blackcomb, and by next year, you can expect to see employees wearing the new Helly Hansen kits on the West Coast and Park City, as well. Full implementation across all of Vail Resorts’ 41 properties in North America, Australia, and Europe is scheduled to be complete by the 2026-27 season.
Vail Mountain spokesperson John Plack, who has doubled as a new uniform model in recent months, said Babb put a level of dedication into the uniform project which will benefit workers for years to come.
“Jeff’s been working on this really hard for a very long time, and I think it’s a program that the company’s pretty proud of,” Plack said.
Dog lost in East Vail car accident found alive after 2 nights in the cold
In a happy ending that some weren’t expecting, a lost dog was found on Friday in East Vail after spending 50 hours alone in cold conditions.
Bandit, a 6-year-old terrier mix, had been missing since Wednesday after he could not be located following a rollover crash on Interstate 70, which sent 19-year-old Kate Fritsch to the hospital with a head injury. She received stitches and is doing OK.
The dog’s owners — Kate and her father, Kyle Fritsch — had remained optimistic but were fearing the worst after examining the scene of the accident. He assumed the dog had been tossed off the slippery bridge where the rollover occurred, east of East Vail on Vail Pass.
“I’d just like to find him and bury him,” he said on Wednesday.
Summit Lost Pet Rescue learned of the incident and got in touch with the family, organizing a search effort using techniques and resources that the Fritsches would not have had on their own.
“They came over with trail cameras, they help set up scent stations, they helped search; there was a whole massive group of volunteers,” Kyle said. “There were all these things that I just didn’t realize … because of the trauma, (dogs) won’t come to you; they’ll just sit under a tree in shock, they’re in flight mode, and they don’t even recognize their owners sometimes.”
In addition to the Summit Lost Pet Rescue volunteers, the East Vail community had rallied together to search for Bandit on Wednesday and Thursday with no sign of the dog.
But on Friday, he emerged and returned to the scene of the accident, and reports of the dog being spotted in the freeway median at milepost 184 started coming in at about 3 p.m. on Friday. By 3:30 p.m., “some good samaritans were able to coax Bandit into their car and safely reunite him with the family,” said Melissa Davis with Summit Lost Pet Rescue.
She said the large neon signs that her team had set up on Vail Pass, alerting motorists of the lost dog, proved helpful in keeping people on the lookout.
Kyle said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. He lived in Eagle County in the ’90s.
“We moved to Denver after we lived up here for four or five years,” he said from East Vail on Saturday. “You forget how much sense of community, and true, genuine caring that people have … you don’t get that in big cities.”
Avon won’t fly Israel’s flag after spirited Town Council debate
The controversial subject of whether to display a flag on Avon’s flagpole in the roundabout at Avon Road and Benchmark Road resurfaced on Tuesday when Town Council member Chico Thuon proposed flying an Israeli flag.
During the mayor and council comments section that comes just before the meeting closes, he suggested the council consider flying an Israeli flag on its flagpole to show support for Israel during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
He introduced the topic by referencing communication that occurred prior to the meeting between members of the council and the public about the possibility of flying the flag. Avon Mayor Amy Phillips later clarified that members of the public had contacted her about the topic, and she had responded.
“I personally support the idea just because we’ve supported Ukraine, we’re supported LGBTQ,” Thuon said.
Flags and backlash
In 2021, Avon began flying a Pride flag during the month of June, which is Pride Month, to signify support for LGBTQ+ members of the community and accompany the town’s Pride in the Park event. Despite some backlash, a Pride flag has flown in Avon every June since 2021.
In March 2022, the Avon Town Council voted to fly a Ukrainian flag for a month to show solidarity following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Ukranian flag was flown again in Avon in April 2023, when two Ukranian amputees came to Eagle County to receive prosthetic limbs.
In addition to the precedent the town set with the previous two flags, Thuon suggested aligning Avon’s position with that of the federal government.
“With those two things being said, I think the U.S. government supports Israel. I’ve also heard that we don’t want to do that, or I’ve heard rumors that we want to separate church and state, where I don’t really see this as a church thing. I see it as a country thing. We need to support our partners around the world, and we need to kind of be uniform,” he said.
The town of Avon has historically followed a policy of not using its flagpole as a public forum but rather reserving it for distinct governmental displays, explained Avon Town Attorney Karl Hanlon. The Avon flagpoles typically fly the flags of the United States, the state of Colorado, and the town of Avon.
“You have never turned your flagpole into a formal public forum,” he said. “We had a discussion in (20)22 and then earlier this year in (20)23 about the Boston flagpole case, where that flagpole became a public forum because they allowed anybody who requested to fly a flag to be allowed to fly a flag. Avon has never done that, and so from your standpoint, for it to remain government speech, it really needs to come from this body as your decision to do that, not at the request of (a citizen).”
He clarified that the council could choose to fly the Israeli flag as a government decision.
“If this is something the council chooses to do, as government speech, on behalf of Avon, I think that is totally permissible for you to do – just recognizing that this is not you responding to a particular request; this is you deciding as a body to use your right of government speech as the entity to fly that flag,” he said.
Many members of the council had reservations about flying the Israeli flag on Avon’s behalf, with several citing conflicting narratives accompanying the war.
“I agree with everything you said, Chico, but there are hostages on both sides. There is a religious war. There are ethnicities on both sides that believe they are right, and we have people who live here in America that are on both sides of that. I am not picking a side,” said Lindsay Hardy, Avon Town Council member.
The United States has affirmed that Israel, a country that refers to itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has a right and obligation to defend itself. The country declared war on Hamas, which is based out of the Gaza Strip, following Hamas killing and taking hostage Israelis on Oct. 7.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken wrote: “From the moment Hamas slaughtered more than 1,400 people in Israel, including at least 35 U.S. citizens, and took more than 230 hostages, President Biden has consistently affirmed Israel’s right — indeed, its obligation — to defend itself and prevent Hamas from carrying out such an attack ever again.”
Council member Ruth Stanley stated that she would never again involve herself or her vote in any flag-related discussion in Avon, after seeing contention in the community following former flag raisings.
“I am no longer in favor of taking the responsibility of choosing what flag we fly, when; so I will always abstain from any flag. I’ve heard too much from too many people,” she said.
Avon Mayor Pro Tem Tamra Underwood clarified the difference between flying the Pride flag and flying flags that declare a stance on international conflicts.
“I find a distinction between supporting members of our community by flying the LGBTQ+ flag during Pride Month, or even a little bit longer, surrounding our Pride event. I think it’s important, welcoming, sincere, authentic, community-based speech from this council as to the importance of that event and that marginalized community,” she said.
She stated that in a vote, she would be opposed to involving Avon’s flagpole in any international affairs, including the Israel-Hamas war.
“My heart breaks for Ukraine, my heart breaks for Israel, my heart breaks for the Palestinian people that are caught up in this. I voted against flying the Ukrainian flag – not because I hate Ukraine or whatever, I just don’t think this forum is the place to speak on those massively complicated issues of international relations,” she said.
Mayor’s last word
Phillips was the last to speak, providing context for Thuon’s introduction of the topic.
“I was the one who made the comment that a separation of church and state is enshrined in our constitution; and therefore, anything that is going to be what I think is really at the root of so much bloodshed and horror throughout the world – since the Middle Ages – has been religious wars, and that’s part of the reason why I believe strongly that there needs to be a separation of church and state,” she said.
She explained her opposition to flying the Israeli flag as a matter of principle.
“Looking at pretty much everything about if we chose to fly the flag of Israel, we’re actually supporting a constitution that has religious doctrines very strongly in their constitution, including updates, and that’s why I did make the comment that I would not support something because of the separation of church and state that I think is so important in the United States,” she said.
Israel has no formal written constitution but rather operates by a set of rules called the Basic Laws of Israel. In 2018, in the most recently created Basic Law, Israel declared itself the nation-state of the Jewish people.
For many Israelis and Jews, however, their Jewish identity is cultural, not religious.
The Associated Press reports that an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey published in 2021 found that among Israeli Jews over the age of 20, about 45% identified as secular or not religious, while 33% said they practiced “traditional” religious worship. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim in Hebrew, made up 10% of those surveyed.
Phillips also cited the promotion of a positive community spirit within Avon as a deciding factor for her opposition to flying the Israeli flag.
“With that said, I very much agree with Tamra that the Pride flag is completely different, and the reasons we’ve flown that are completely different, and quite honestly, like Lindsay mentioned, I don’t see where us flying a flag is going to promote anything positive in our community. I have absolutely no idea how many Palestinians are in our community. I know how many are in the community I grew up in as a kid, and again, that’s where my deep-rooted belief that church and state should be separate, is why I wouldn’t support that,” she said.
Council member Rich Carroll stated that if the council were to make a decision on the subject, it should be an agenda item, not in response to a council comment.
Phillips left the option to propose a vote up to Thuon, as he originally proposed flying the flag. He opted not to move for a vote.
“I have nothing else to say. You’ve (Phillips) said it all. Your statement says it all,” he said.
The final consensus was one for the flag, three against, and two abstaining.
Colorado Democrats seek to deliver same property tax relief as Prop HH without touching TABOR refunds
Colorado Democrats’ primary idea for reducing homeowners’ property taxes due next year is nearly identical to what Proposition HH proposed, but it would only last a year and uses a different mechanism for replacing lost revenue for local districts.
During a special legislative session that begins on Friday, lawmakers will also debate bills aimed at providing financial relief for renters, making all refunds issued under the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) the same amount for everyone and expanding the state’s earned income tax credit.
The special session will last at least three days and is likely to be a pressure cooker as lawmakers work to find consensus on complex tax policies before Thanksgiving. Republicans have pitched their own ideas for dealing with skyrocketing property taxes, including additional cuts to the state income tax, but Democrats have said that plan is unworkable.
Senate President Steve Fenberg, in a press conference on Thursday, said Democrats’ primary bill would allow homeowners to deduct $50,000 of their home’s value from property taxes, up from the already-existing $15,000 deduction. It would also cut the state’s assessment rate for residential properties, which is used to calculate property taxes, to 6.7% from 6.765%.
“If we do nothing, thousands of Colorado families, especially those on fixed incomes, would be at risk of being unable to stay in their homes,” he said.
Unlike Proposition HH, the bill wouldn’t offer any tax relief for commercial properties.
That bill proposes backfilling the revenue from property taxes — which is collected by counties and used for local services like schools and fire districts — with $200 million from the general fund. The vast majority of that money, $135 million, would go toward school funding.
Another bill that’s expected to be introduced would make TABOR refunds from this fiscal year the same amount for each person, as opposed to the default mechanism, which doles out refunds based on how much someone earns. The flattened approach would give lower income Coloradans larger refunds.
Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, said he supports that idea.
“We have lower income individuals and working class people in our communities that will be able to use that increased benefit to pay for rent and increased costs,” said Roberts, who represents Clear Creek, Eagle, Garfield, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.
Relief for renters
Another bill, sponsored by Reps. Mandy Lindsay, D-Aurora, and Leslie Herod, D-Denver, would dedicate $30 million in general fund dollars to an emergency rental assistance grant program for people who have a household income of 80% or less of the area median income and are at risk of eviction.
House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, is a cosponsor on the bill and said when she talked to the governor about the special session, she mentioned her interest in addressing relief for renters.
“I was really pleased to see in the governor’s call, the opportunity for us to broaden the scope of support,” she said. “Property taxes are soaring but we want to make sure that all Coloradans at this moment get some support.”
People are deemed as being at risk of eviction when they have received a notice for being late on rent and the Division of Housing, under the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, has deemed them at risk of imminent eviction.
The Division of Housing would partner with non-profits to award the grants.
Grant recipients would be allowed to use the funding on rent, utility bills, late fees, court costs, and other costs that would prevent them from being evicted. They could also use it for a deposit or other move-in expenses as part of relocation. All of the funds would have to be used by July 2024.
Democrats also want to expand the state’s already-existing Earned Income Tax Credit.
A different view
While both Democrats and Republicans agree the surge in property taxes need to be addressed, they differ on ways to do it and how to replace that revenue for the local districts that typically use it, such as schools and fire districts.
The Republicans’ plan includes reducing the state’s assessment rate for residential properties to 6.5% from 6.765% and nonresidential to 25% from 27.9%. It would also create $80,000 for residential property value reductions and $60,000 for commercial properties. It suggests backfilling the revenue for local districts by using $617.5 million from the state’s reserves and general fund.
Another Republican bill would reduce the state’s income tax rate to 4% from 4.4%.
“We have gone to great lengths to get local government associations and other stakeholders involved in the process while remaining focused on delivering real property tax relief,” said House Minority Leader Mike Lynch in a written statement. “We have shared our plan with the Democrats and hope they are sincere in bridging the divide and bringing real property tax relief to the people of Colorado.”
Democrats have said they’re not interested in using the state’s reserves for backfill.
“We have found the Republican proposal to not be serious,” Hansen said. “That is not workable; we have danger of a recession — that would be pretty fiscally irresponsible.”
Roberts said he hopes for bipartisan agreement during the special session.
“I think this is a problem for our state and one that we can work together to figure out or at least alleviate for the time being,” he said. “I hope this doesn’t turn into a partisan struggle.”
At Colorado River’s headwaters, questions about whether there’s enough water for lawns
Editor’s note: This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the second part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado. To read the first installment, go to aspentimes.com/news/colorado-squeezing-water-from-urban-landscapes.
If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.
Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.
First came 2002.
Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.
In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.
Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.
Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other Upper Basin states.
In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards.
Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year.
The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors.
Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.
“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”
Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf.
Three years ago, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2.
“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said.
Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.
Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also an acknowledgment of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities.
“That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.
‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango
Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, The Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”
He believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, he thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.
At the Colorado Capitol, the bill that was introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.
Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended.
Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.
The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.
Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.
All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs, and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.
Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.
Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.
“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager.
Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits?
“We are not overly prescriptive,” he said. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”
Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?
“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” he said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”
But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”
Droughts versus aridification
The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet, more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.
And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California, and Nevada.
The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.
In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.
It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century, it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.
Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.
Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal utility taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.
Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.
This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification.
“I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.
Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.
Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along the streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player.
These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.
“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a non-profit. “It was crazy.”
Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.
In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.
“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”
The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.
Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.
Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at the river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines.
“It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.
Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”
A steeper staircase of water rates
After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.
Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.
In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.
So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program.
Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.
The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border.
Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”
That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume.
Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”
District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.
In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.
The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.
Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a non-profit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at bigpivots.com and ataspenjournalism.org.