Anybody remember Gilman?
Detractors of a property tax hike to fund open space in Eagle County say one of the plan’s biggest shortcomings is its lack of a shopping list of private parcels to be bought up and protected from development.That’s because you never know what’s going to go on the market, or for how much, says Eagle Valley Land Trust executive director Cindy Cohagen. For instance, one piece of highly desirable property would top the land trust’s list if it ever emerges favorably from a morass of litigation that’s tied it up for years.The Gilman Tract, a 6,000-acre patchwork of old mining claims strategically situated off the backside of Vail Mountain between Minturn and Red Cliff, would be a prime target of any funds generated by referendum 1H if it passes Nov. 5.The 1.5 mill property tax increase would raise $3 million for the purchase of open space, which amounts to about $14 in new taxes a year on every $100,000 in assessed home value. The tax would sunset in 2025.”If (the Gilman decision) were to come out and the judge would rule favorably, that would immediately become our top priority, because it has so much significance historically, scenically, as wildlife habitat, and its impact on recreation and quality of life,” Cohagen says. “It would be a major deal. But it’s wait and see what happens when that comes out of the judge’s chambers.”A scenic hodgepodge of high-altitude real estate on either side of U.S. Highway 24, the tract is the largest privately owned chunk of land in the upper Eagle River Valley, one laboriously assembled by two Denver lawyers in a secret partnership with Vail Associates beginning in 1992.The lawyers, Michael Page and Jim Aronstein, used their own money and more than $4 million of the ski company’s money to buy up deeds of trusts, tax liens and promissory notes, with Vail maintaining the right to one day exercise a 50-percent option on the property.The ski company’s involvement with Page and Aronstein, doing business as Turkey Creek Limited Liability, came to light in the mid-1990s in the midst of the contentious Forest Service approval process for Vail’s 885-acre Blue Sky Basin ski expansion, then known as Category III.By then, Vail Resorts and its new ownership recognized that the Gilman Tract – named for the abandoned and somewhat toxic mining town in its midst was becoming, in the words of CEO Adam Aron, a “red herring.”Environmentalists opposed to Category III pointed to Gilman and its proximity to the new ski slopes (about a mile at its closest point) and screamed that the expansion was all about ski-in, ski-out real estate and high-end trophy homes. Clearly, that’s what Turkey Creek’s two lawyers had in mind, and there is some evidence Vail Associates was also thinking along those lines at least in the early going.But by 1999, dogged by negative press and unconvinced the Gilman Tract would ever be a highly profitable venture, Vail Resorts tried to exercise its option on the land with a $5,000 check. The company began investigating the possibility of a conservation easement.Turkey Creek rejected that move and sued the ski company for “breaching good faith and fair dealing by failing to commit to the prompt and diligent development of the properties,” among other things. And VR counter-sued, with the entire tangled legal mess winding up in an April, 2001, trial in Eagle County District Court.”We’re on record as saying we think the most appropriate use for Gilman is to dedicate it as open space, and we still strongly feel that way, but the litigation has to be resolved first,” says Vail Resorts senior vice president of public affairs Porter Wharton III, adding that his company stands firmly behind the open space tax regardless of the outcome of the Gilman case.Distict judge David Lass still has not ruled on the case nearly a year and half after the trial, but Turkey Creek lawyer Skip Netzorg says his clients remain committed to the venture, though eager for a verdict.”I’d love to have a decision too, but with the resources they give (rural judges), he’s just one guy trying to do this whole thing by himself,” Netzorg says. “Anyone involved in litigation would love to have it done with as soon as possible.”Meanwhile, opponents of the proposed tax say that preserving land like Gilman high altitude and relatively inaccessible is a good argument against passing the measure. They argue that more than 80 percent of the county is federal land, mountainous forests that few people will ever enjoy, so the valley floors should be open to human uses.”We live in the middle of the National Forest; five minutes every direction and you’re in the middle of open space,” says David Gossett of Wildridge, a contractor who filed a formal con statement against the proposed tax. “We’re turning into a land of no uses unless you’re walking.”
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.