Colorado Town Seizing Ski Resort's Land To Stop It Building Employee Housing
The Vail Town Council says that while affordable housing is desperately needed in the community, Vail Resorts' Booth Heights project would threaten local bighorn sheep.
Following months of increasingly contentious head-butting, officials in the mountain town of Vail, Colorado, are moving to seize a property from a local ski resort to prevent it from constructing new housing for its employees.
The property in question is a 5-acre site abutting a frontage road in the eastern part of the 5,600-person ski town. After nearly five years of rezonings, planning, permitting, and litigation, ski resort operator Vail Resorts is ready to move ahead with the $17 million Booth Heights project that would create 165 beds for its work force.
"It's been a multiyear partnership, collaboration, and process to get where we are with a fully entitled and shovel-ready project," says Vail Resorts spokesperson John Plack. "This is private property owned by the company and private dollars that the company is investing into the project."
Plack tells Reason that there's a deficit of some 6,000 beds for the county's work force. The Booth Heights development wouldn't solve that crisis, he says, "but every little bit helps."
Standing in their way is the town of Vail itself, which filed a petition in Eagle County District Court on Friday to invoke its eminent domain powers to seize the Booth Heights site and hold it as open space, Vail Daily first reported.
"It's unfortunate we've come to this place," says Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid of the eminent domain petition.
Vail, Langmaid says, is committed to work force housing and has several public-private partnerships to provide that housing currently in the works. But developing the Booth Heights property would threaten the area's bighorn sheep, who'd be at risk of starvation without that open space, she says.
When the town's last-ditch effort to buy the property for $12 million was rejected by Vail Resorts in early October, Langmaid said they had no choice but to move ahead with eminent domain.
"We've come to the end of our rope. We've tried so hard to find a situation that would accomplish everyone's goals," she says.
It's an about-face from the town government that previously endorsed housing on the site.
In 2017, the Vail Town Council approved Vail Resorts' requested rezoning of its entire 23-acre Booth Heights property. Some 18 acres owned by the company would be zoned for preserved open space, while the other 5 acres would be zoned for work force housing.
Since then, the town's design review board and the planning commission, as well as the town's Council itself, also voted to approve site plans, conditional use permits, and other development plans Vail Resorts needed to move ahead with its project.
In a letter rejecting the town's offer to purchase the site, Vail Resorts COO Bill Rock notes that the town and the company also jointly defended a lawsuit trying to stop the redevelopment of the site that was resolved in the town's favor in October 2020.
"While the Town of Vail has apparently and inexplicably made an about-face in the last several months, Vail Resorts' goal has remained the same for the past five years: to work with the Town to develop affordable housing," wrote Rock.
Langmaid says that the Booth Heights development has long been controversial in the town. Votes to approve the project have generally passed with the slimmest of margins. After the Town Council last voted to approve the project in 2019, a local election flipped the Town Council to a majority that opposed the Booth Heights development, reports Vail Daily.
When the Vail Resorts applied for one final approval from the town's design review board in April, the Council responded by passing a resolution authorizing condemnation and seizure of the property.
And after Vail Resorts received that last needed sign-off from the design review board, making its Booth Heights project shovel-ready, the town passed an emergency ordinance stopping development on the site through the end of November.
Its offer to buy the property was also rejected; the town is now proceeding with eminent domain.
Throughout the process, Vail Resorts has maintained that its project would not harm the area's bighorn sheep. Plack tells Reason the company has committed to paying $100,000 for habitat restoration and would install barriers around its property to prevent residents and pets from interfering with the sheep.
An environmental impact report prepared for the project concluded that it would not harm the area's sheep. Vail Resorts notes in a lawsuit challenging the emergency ordinance stopping construction of its project that the town has approved several large homes within the bighorn sheep's range.
"Why are luxury homes OK," asks Plack. "but affordable housing [is] not?"
Langmaid is dismissive of the company's mitigation measures. Converting the Booth Heights site to housing is still going to eat up needed open space, she says, and no amount of offset payments or fencing is going to change that.
Town residents themselves seem divided on the project. Public comments submitted to the Council when it was debating the use of eminent domain reflect a range of pro- and anti-development views.
"It is obvious that we are in a housing crisis and action needs to be taken immediately. This project is the first piece of what will be a long road to providing more housing opportunities to the workforce of the valley," said one resident opposing the town's seizure of the site.
"First, our wildlife is important to the character and attractiveness of this valley, not the least of which are the sheep," said an eminent domain supporter. "Second, the first view of Vail that visitors (and residents) coming down from Vail pass should see is the current one, not a massive and out of place apartment complex."
Langmaid tells Reason that the town has gone out of its way to identify alternative sites for affordable housing development that could serve Vail Resorts employees without disrupting wildlife. The town spent $2 million relocating a preschool from one site now slated for housing, she notes.
Plack says Vail needs affordable housing now, and it's ready to provide it.
"For us, this option is shovel-ready," says Plack. "A lot of the other options are five-plus years away and have who knows how many obstacles in front of them."