Esson: Sophie’s choice: Wildlife preservation or workforce housing? (column)
September 18, 2017
Editor's note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
A 22-year resident of East Vail, now since 2013 residing in West Vail, I became an active advocate for workforce housing in the early 1990s while working inside for the Vail Ski School and witnessing the distress of so many fellow employees unable to find affordable housing. Year after year, community surveys confirmed the majority of residents agreed, workforce housing being cited as the No. 1 need for several years, then always near the top of the list.
Small-scale solutions advanced — Vail Commons, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District duplexes, Vail Resorts was convinced to replace its Gondola employee-housing units with a new building and finally Middle Creek was built on the north side of the Vail Village roundabout. The town also replaced some dilapidated Timber Ridge buildings. But the disparity between affordable units and employees in need of them grew.
At last now, Vail Resorts has announced a major workforce housing initiative on a large parcel north of the East Vail Interstate 70 exit. Vail Resorts Executive Vice President Chris Jarnot stated at the Sept. 11 Vail Planning and Environmental Commission meeting that the corporation is now prepared to devote its "capital, land and commitments" to developing workforce housing units.
Under other circumstances, this long-time advocate of employee housing would be jumping with joy. Instead, given the site, I am ardently opposed to it. The project would be an unmitigated disaster to the remaining wildlife in the Vail Valley. If it goes forward there, it would make a joke of town of Vail and Vail Resorts' vaunted goals of sustainability.
As a site visit on Monday, Sept. 11, with the Planning and Environmental Commission demonstrated, it is an important summer, as well as winter, range for deer and perhaps elk. But it is particularly important to two iconic species, bighorn sheep and Vail Valley's most reliable peregrine falcon pair.
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The wildlife consultant who surveyed these impacts misstated some facts and glossed over many others stating that the affected species will adapt. I believe they will not.
Earlier reports for the town of Vail Sustainability Commission and Open Lands & Trails scoping process show that East Vail, whose original name ironically was Bighorn, is home to a bighorn sheep herd of 40, but in the '90s it was 80 to 100. A hard winter in 2007-08 decimated the herd, and it has never recovered.
Now, Vail Resorts' housing development proposes to utilize 5.4 acres of the bighorn sheep habitat, the most sheltered, less steep section, for employee housing. Bighorn sheep are notoriously subject to disease when their habitat is reduced, according to a conversation I had with Bill Andree, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager for Vail. Thus, I think the project here seriously threatens herd viability.
The peregrine pair nests each year on a ledge on the steep cliff above the Vail Memorial Park and directly across from the proposed housing development. Recently back from the "endangered" list, but still a "species of interest" to U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, they have successfully raised and fledged two to four young each year at least since 2010 when I began observing them.
Without fail, they fly the second to third week of July, not June, which is rewarding to follow. Colorado Parks and Wildlife recommends a half-mile buffer from the nest site to avoid further human disturbance. The proposed development is well within that, as well as the winter range buffer for bighorn sheep.
Faced with this dilemma, this Sophie's choice of wildlife preservation or badly needed workforce housing, what are we to do?
Vail resident Alan Danson has proposed an intriguing solution. At the Sept. 11 zoning hearing before the Planning and Environmental Commission, he urged the town to offer the resort company as much density as it might wish, but in exchange to swap the East Vail parcel for city-owned property along North Frontage Road across from Vail Village and west of Middle Creek. This was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the majority of those attending the packed hearing.
I believe this solution merits serious examination and urge the town and resort company to embrace it. It is a win-win for all parties, the town, Vail Resorts, residents, employees and certainly for our already stressed wildlife populations. The alternative gains us a decrease or even loss of bighorn sheep, peregrine falcons, elk and deer but, no doubt, an increase in bear, lion and moose in residential areas. The swap, however, would generate good feeling toward Vail Resorts, harmony among residents and benefits also the guest experience.
Anne Esson is a Vail resident.
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