Animosity stalls open space progress | VailDaily.com
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Animosity stalls open space progress

Don Rogers
Daily Managing Editor

In the winter, Vail Resorts decided not to seek county open space funding this year for the tangle of land swapping with the Forest Service that would preserve 480 acres of west Avon from future development.

I’m told they made the decision internally, irrespective of encouragement from Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone to apply or the wishes of the Eagle Valley Land Trust to keep the Bair Ranch agreement at the east end of Glenwood Canyon as the one applicant for the open space property tax revenue that comes in at $3 million annually.

The swirl of competing philosophy, politics and personal animosity under Eagle County’s first foray into preserving open space with its new tax fund is dizzying at times. It’s also rendered a sensible first step, at a terrific bargain, into a cat fight.

I’ve been beating up on VR lately, trying to remind them of the commitments they made over two years ago in a mass of land swaps that would give the Forest Service Vassar Meadows 18 miles south of Eagle and Vail Resorts that land at west Avon, which they had planned to use a portion of to build employee housing. Since then, the company figured out it didn’t need to build more employee housing, and the town of Avon was not crazy about having that land built upon.

I knew VR had had some discussion with the county about going after open space money this year, but I didn’t know that they had decided against it. With Avon’s town council rejecting the company’s bid for the zoning that would allow building employee housing VR no longer wants, this land swap deal is off.

That leaves the Forest Service’s coveted Vassar Meadows still owned by a conservation group, held with a loan that’s too much to pay back to Vail Resorts. And the Forest Service keeps the west Avon acerage that it prizes far less than the mostly wetland treasure inside national forest.

The result is that locally desired open space in Avon remains, well, open space. As long as the Forest Service holds it, it will remain this way. Of course this land also is, at least in theory, trade bait for private islands of property inside national forest.

I’m looking for Stone to apply the same long view that Bair Ranch conservation easement proponents are using to advocate that Eagle County join with all the other agencies and private contributors that understand what an opportunity they have in purchasing the development rights to the 4,800-acre ranch. In politics, the players tend to have little sense of irony.

For now, Stone and the other opponents who are practically using pitchforks to toss up strawmen against Bair Ranch include the notion that the ranch would never be developed anyway. Too many obstacles, too little demand, and so on. Funny, once upon a time folks said the same thing about places like Edwards – now with a population topping 8,000 and counting.

Similarly, Stone teasing up a conspiracy out of the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s desires to keep it simple with supporting fund-raising first for Bair and then for a Vasser Meadows-west Avon deal is about as silly as their discomfit at him heartily encouraging Vail Resorts to apply for open space funds this year.

Stone insists that his personal relationship – or lack thereof – with the Bairs and all too much animosity he and members of the land trust board hold for each other have no bearing at all on handlng open space questions fully professionally.

When he adds it all up, he sees protecting mid-valley open space, where such land is scarcer and the price of that land is rising faster, as far more important than land that spills over the border into Garfield County.

That makes sense, even if observers suspect something else at work in a certain lack of flexibility to see the merits in the Bair Ranch deal – which federal, state and private organizations, the county’s open space advisory committee, and state and federal legislators all understand clearly. He appears to have worked too hard to derail the deal for folks to believe there are no hard feelings involved here, too.

The open space advocates despise Stone, make no mistake about that. And he holds no warm place in his heart for them. This much has been all too obvious for a long time.

However “professional” either party may clothe their actions, hard feelings have shut off the middle ground and chance for win-win conversations that best serve the rest of us. As a result, the hard core of what Stone calls “his” constituents is not the community at large. Support for the Bair agreement is running at 70 percent or more in input to the county.

In their anger at Stone, the open space advocates may not be listening so well, either. His views on open space are not so obviously off-base as they tend to cast them, and the Bair Ranch project is not such the slam dunk great deal that they like to project.

It does take thought and reasoning a little more abstract than “why can’t I use the land for free,” “the property would never be developed anyway,” “why support a dude ranch in the process,” and “if I can’t see it all from I-70, who cares?”

Here’s the irony in this cat fight: It’s unnecessary. The county open space tax account this year could handle funding the west Avon deal to the tune of the $750,000 that would have been sought AND the $2 million catalyst contribution to make the $5.1 million Bair Ranch deal work out. That would be an awesome start to the county’s efforts to preserve open space.

If Stone and the sole private open space organization in the county had a sincere conversation, I believe each side would understand that both of the deals are in the county’s long-term best interests to get done, and the sooner the better. Bair has long been obvious to me, and with the Vassar-west Avon swap now kaput, I’m finally seeing the merits in open space funds helping tide over a new deal there, too.

The difficulty between Stone and the land trust is not merely a “professional” failure of the minds to meet. This is a problem for the whole community. Sadly, I don’t expect either side to take a long look in the mirror anytime soon. It would be a shame to see good deals go undone as a consequence.

Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com


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