Vail Resorts announces plans to build on controversial parcel in East Vail
Company details plans to move forward with $17M project to provide 165 employees with affordable housing
Vail Resorts on Monday announced plans to go forward with a controversial project to develop a parcel of land in East Vail for workforce housing.
The land is located on bighorn sheep habitat. Vail Resorts learned it owned the parcel in 2016 after a previous land map had shown the 23-acre parcel was owned by the state of Colorado. Vail Resorts had not been paying taxes on the land in the decades leading up to the discovery, but the company paid two years’ back taxes — the legally required maximum — and in 2017 requested rezoning for the 23-acre parcel, which was first zoned as two-family residential.
Most of the property was moved into a natural area preservation zone district, but 5.4 acres was moved into a housing zone district. That zone district requires mostly workforce housing on a parcel, but allows some free-market housing, as well.
Responding to public concern about the fate of the bighorn sheep herd that uses part of the property as winter range, a study was undertaken during the winter of 2017-18 by wildlife biologist Rick Thompson, who found 93 sheep on and in the immediate vicinity of the 5.4-acre East Vail development area during the study.
In 2019, the town’s planning and environmental commission passed a project, known as Booth Heights, to build 61 residential units on the 5.4-acre parcel by a vote of 4-3. One of the deciding votes in favor was cast by a Vail Resorts employee who was on the commission, adding to the controversy.
The Vail Town Council upheld the planning commission’s decision, also on a 4-3 vote, but a Vail Town Council election a few months later turned the council majority against the previous council’s decision, and a period of negotiations were entered into to preserve the sheep habitat.
In early 2020, the town of Vail, Vail Resorts and Triumph Development — which had a purchase contract on the property and moved the project through the town’s approval process — entered into negotiations to build workforce housing elsewhere in town.
Vail Resorts left those talks in late 2020, about the time Triumph canceled its purchase contract.
“This project was approved by the Town of Vail in October 2019 after an extensive planning and environmental review, including a wildlife study performed with input from Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” Vail Resorts announced in a release issued Monday. “The approval was upheld by the district court in October 2020. Construction was then delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company looks forward to proceeding this summer with this essential project, which is expected to be complete by December 2023.
Housing vs wildlife
Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid said in a phone interview Monday that Vail Resorts still has work to do before starting construction. Langmaid also noted that current approvals forbid construction during bighorn lambing season. That season is generally in May and June, Langmaid said.
Langmaid added survival of the sheep herd is her “number one and only concern” about building on the site.
A report from wildlife biologists indicated that building on the site would “cause great harm if not extinction of the herd, and we should avoid building there at all costs,” Landmaid said.
Langmaid added that Vail Resorts seems to be contradicting its corporate goal of having zero net impact on wildlife habitat. The company owns other property in town where it could build workforce housing, she said, adding that it seems the company is “choosing to destroy sheep habitat rather than using other locations closer to (resort areas).”
In a column published by the Vail Daily, Vail Mountain COO Beth Howard said Vail Mountain does not want to give up on the already approved project.
“Our employees and community deserve more affordable housing options, and our company is committed to seeing that come to fruition in East Vail,” Howard said.
Howard said Vail Resorts has developed wildlife protections for the project with input from environmental consultants and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“This includes our company’s decision to rezone the property, dedicating over 17 acres to natural area preservation, and providing $100,000 to the Town to fund long overdue habitat improvement efforts in the bighorn sheep winter range,” Howard said. “Every new development brings environmental concerns, and we took seriously those raised in regards to this project. In addition to doing our part to mitigate environmental impacts, we must also balance those concerns with the urgent need for affordable housing.”
And in reference to the character of the existing homes in East Vail, Howard added, “We, as a community, need to be careful not to give the green light on high-end expensive homes, but then block affordable housing in the same area.”
Vail Town Councilman Kevin Foley said Vail Resorts’ Monday announcement could be the trigger for the town launching condemnation procedures on the parcel.
Foley said he and other council members have been watching Vail Resorts’ approach to the property. Council members a few weeks ago told Town Manager Scott Robson to inform company officials that they would launch condemnation procedures if Vail Resorts acquired a building permit for the property.
That’s happened, Foley said.
Foley said the town has a current appraisal on the property, as does Vail Resorts. The town will use reserve funds for a purchase “if we have to.”
But, he added, town officials have approached the Eagle Valley Land Trust to ask about the possibility of using Eagle County open space funds to help with the possible acquisition of the property.
Foley noted that the town many years ago acquired the land that’s now Ford Park via condemnation.
“They’ve got an approved development plan,” Foley said of Vail Resorts. “But we’ve got a higher and better use: preservation.”
— John LaConte contributed reporting.