Avon denies zoning request
As expected, the Avon Town Council Tuesday night denied a zoning request by Vail Resortsand effectively pulled the plug on a property swap five years in the planning and involving nearly 1,000 acres of land.
The complex deal involved seven different parcels of land and revolved around Vail Resorts spending $3.4 million to purchase 509 acres of wetlands and uplands south of Eagle, known as Vassar Meadows, and deeding that to the U.S. Forest Service. In return, the resort company would have received 480 acres of Forest Service land on the north side of Interstate 70 between Avon and Singletree. Vail Resorts would have kept 40 acres for 300 units of affordable housing and deeded the rest to the Eagle Valley Land Trust, a local conservation agency, to be preserved as open space.
Several smaller parcels of land scattered across Eagle County were also part of the swap, which hinged on the zoning approval.
“It’s clear to me this project isn’t the right one,” said Avon Councilman Mac McDevitt as he and the rest of the council cast a 5-0 vote against the zoning request,
In the exchange agreement, Vail Resorts made the deal be contingent upon zoning approval. Without it the deal dissolves, said Jack Hunn of Vail Resorts. But he didn’t say the company was abandoning its stated resolve to help protect one of the wetlands at Vassar Meadows, 18 miles south of Eagle.
“What hasn’t changed is our desire to help the Forest Service and county preserve Vassar Meadows,” he said. “This decision means real progress can be made with a different deal.”
But how that will happen isn’t clear. Land exchanges are like a never-ending poker game with a revolving cast of characters. Each player has different objectives and holds his cards close to the vest. The Forest Service has property ” often times on the fringes of its forest lands “that it wants to get rid of. Private individuals and companies often have lands they would trade to the Forest Service in return for similarly valued Forest Service land.
For Vail Resorts, the land exchange gave the company more land for employee housing that in 2000, when the deal was first proposed, was in chronically short supply. Since then, the economy has tanked, the resort company downsized and lots of other affordable housing projects have opened, lessening the need for housing.
Vail Resorts also is keenly pursuing another land exchange with the Forest Service. It wants three acres at the base of Vail Mountain south of Vail Village for its $75 million Front Door project, in which it will redesign the area around the Vista Bahn Express chairlift. In return it will give the Forest Service nearly 136 acres at South Game Creek on Vail Mountain and 160 acres south of Arrowhead at Mud Springs.
The Forest Service made it clear that the Front Door land swap would take a back seat to protecting the pristine wetlands of Vassar Meadows.
Relations between the Forest Service and the ski company became frayed last winter as the resort company adopted a glacial pace pursuing the Avon-Vassar Meadows exchange. The Forest Service issued an ultimatum to Vail Resorts to live up to its end of the contract and seek the zoning from Avon that was the linchpin of the deal.
The Forest Service wanted to see the west Avon parcel protected and also bring Vassar Meadows into its jurisdiction.
“The game doesn’t have to be over,” said Barry Sheakley, Forest Service lands specialist. “We want to acquire and protect Vassar and work with the local communities to achieve their goals. Someone needs to go to Vail Resorts and convince them to make the deal.”
The reshuffling of the complicated land swap scenario will likely make this deal tougher to achieve, participants on all sides said Tuesday.
At present, Vassar Meadows is owned by the Conservation Trust of Boulder, which is holding the land until a buyer can be found. The trust purchased the land for $3.4 million in 2001 in part with a no-interest, 18 month loan from Vail Resorts. Since then the trust has been holding the land and making the $10,000 monthly payments.
The trust would have been paid back when Vail Resorts purchased Vassar Meadows, then conveyed it to the Forest Service and then received the land west of Avon.
Avon denied the zoning request on a number of fronts: The 300 residential units proposed was considered too dense for the site and council members were worried about traffic congestion as well as potential geological hazards on the steep hillside.
“The pieces haven’t blown completely apart,” said Sheakley. “It will just be more difficult to the exchange now.”