Avon land swap teeters in balance
One of Eagle County’s highest-profile land trades is expected to dissolve tonight.
The swap aimed at protecting pristine wetlands and uplands south of Eagle and open space west of Avon has been stalled for nearly three years. A zoning denial by the Avon Town Council would finish it.
The expected demise of the swap puts into limbo the Vassar Meadows wetlands south of Eagle that Forest Service officials have labeled the top land swap priority on the 2.2 million-acre White River National Forest. It also raises the specter that the land could be acquired for development, and reverses the support the town of Avon expressed for a trio of resolutions of support that authorized $300,000 in funding issued by the town over the past 24 months.
The complicated land swap proposed exchanging 480 acres of U. S. Forest Service land between Avon and Singletree, plus several smaller parcels, for 509 acres of privately held land at Vassar Meadows, 18 miles south of Eagle, to protect the latter from development. The swap would also create an open space between Avon and Edwards.
Many of those who helped cobble together the swap, such as the Forest Service’s Barry Sheakley, have expressed disappointment that the proposal collapsed. That has shaken even the process-driven Forest Service.
“Land exchanges are not supposed to get this far down the line and have them collapse,” Sheakley said. “That isn’t what normally happens. This is the first time anyone can remember a land exchange getting to this point and having it basically collapse.”
That denial of the zoning request is expected because the proposal does not meet the town’s master plan objectives, according to Avon Town Manager Larry Brooks.
It’s also the sole escape clause in the exchange agreement inked by Vail Resorts more than 30 months ago. The town Planing and Zoning Commission has recommended denial to the Town Council. If that happens, as expected, Vail Resorts may back out of the exchange agreement.
Land swaps of this size typically move very slowly. While this one was in the works, the national and local economy hit the skids, Vail Resorts downsized, and the company’s need for more employee housing diminished.
Originally the resort company proposed buying 40 acres for $3.4 million. That money would be used to purchase the private land south of Eagle and to transfer it to public ownership. The remaining land in Avon, 440 acres, would become open space under the control of the Eagle Valley Land Trust.
In 2002, the resort company had wanted to build 250 or more units of affordable housing. It’s a project the company no longer needs because it has adequate employee housing, and the zoning application was made under the pressure of a lawsuit by the Forest Service, which wanted to get the stalled swap moving again. Access to the land, through the end of Nottingham Road, proved tenuous, according to Vail Resorts, and that, too, slowed the project.
“We’ve spent five years (on this) and walked away with nothing,” said Steve Rinella, lands team group leader for the regional office of the Forest Service. “We’ve got to evaluate whether they made a bona fide attempt to get the zoning.”
“That means we start from scratch on everything,” Sheakley said.
Vassar Meadows is now owned by the Conservation Trust of Boulder, which purchased the land and held it with an 18-month-long no-interest loan from Vail Resorts while the exchange progressed. But after that, Tom Macy’s organization is heavily encumbered, carrying the estimated $10,000 per month cost of the land.
Macy could not be reached Monday for comment, nor could representatives from Vail Resorts.
Vail Resorts moved so slowly on the swap that the Forest Service in October 2003 issued an ultimatum and a threat to take legal action if the company did not live up to its contractual obligations as outlined in the exchange agreement. In March, the resort company applied for zoning for the
See Swap, page A9
Complicating matters has been a turnover of managers responsible for the project at Vail Resorts and for the town. In early March Jim Mandel, the latest project manager, and Vail Resorts abruptly parted company. He had replaced Jack Lewis, who moved to a company project in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Last week Avon’s planner, Ruth Borne, announced she would be leaving the town to start her own business.
Vail Resorts and the Forest Service are joined at the hip at numerous points. Vail Resorts is the single largest permittee on the national forest system and pays the Forest Service millions of dollars annually for its special use permits.
The company also has another land swap in Vail that it wants very badly – 3 acres at the base of Vail Mountain that would be used for Vail’s $75 million Front Door project. The acreage next to the lift would be used for real estate development.
That proposed swap, which was delayed pending the outcome of the Avon-Vassar Meadows swap, seeks the 3 acres of Forest Service land slopeside near the Vista Bahn lift in return for 136 acres the company owns in Game Creek and 160 acres south of Arrowhead at Mud Springs.
Sheakley said he thinks the failure of the Avon-Vassar Meadows exchange may have repercussions on the Front Door exchange, too.
“We’re going to have to stop and take a breath and take a look at procedures,” Sheakley said. “We want to make sure we don’t have a similar thing with the Front Door, where towns control local zoning and a land swap is stuck in the middle.”
So what now?
One glimmer of hope for conservationists intent on saving the two parcels from development may lie in a backdoor inquiry made by Vail Resorts about the possibility of using the county’s newly enacted open space tax revenue to make the deal happen. That tax annually generates $2.9 million. The company has not made public what, if anything, it intends to do.
Currently, $2 million of the open space tax revenue is being eyed by the county for another high-profile land exchange – the Bair Ranch – at the east end of Glenwood Canyon.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 949-0555, ext. 450.