Breckenridge: A question of identity |

Breckenridge: A question of identity

Mark Jaffe
The Denver Post
Breckenridge, CO Colorado

BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado ” While this town’s fortunes ride on skiing, a plan to expand downhill terrain to a fifth peak has sparked debate over whether more growth will threaten the soul of the community.

Breckenridge is the most-visited ski resort in the United States, so the resort’s plan to expand on federal land set off an avalanche of protest letters to the U.S. Forest Service, which must approve the expansion.

In letter after letter, residents complained that the town ” already struggling with a building boom and, on some days, traffic gridlock ” would be overwhelmed.

“The mountain is bigger than the town. We don’t want the mountain to crush the town,” one area resident said at a recent meeting on the issue.

This tension between town and slope runs across the Rockies as the prospect of ski-resort expansions fans community concerns in places such as Crested Butte and Telluride.

“Nobody really knows what the right balance is or how ski expansion affects quality of life,” said Crested Butte Mayor Alan Bernholtz. “It is a question we are all asking.”

In the past 14 years, Colorado ski terrain on national forest land has grown by a third, to 39,600 acres. The number of skier days has risen to 12.5 million, according to data from the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.

The resorts have another 34,000 acres of national forest land under permit for possible future development.

With growth has come prosperity.

In a county-by-county study of growth in the West, Montana economist Ray Rasker found many of the most affluent counties included three amenities ” public lands, an airport and a ski resort.

Growth in mountain towns, however, is often pinched by limited roads and valley walls, which can translate to a strain on infrastructure and soaring land values.

Forty years ago, Breckenridge had 548 residents, one paved road and a single ski slope. The town is trying to hang on to that feel, even though at peak times its population swells to more than 36,000.

On Jan. 3, Colorado 9, which becomes Park Avenue, was so clogged that 10 Breckenridge police officers ” including Chief Rick Holman ” were out directing traffic, starting 2 miles outside of town.

This happens about 20 times a year, and those days are among the things that set residents against adding more ski terrain.

U.S. Forest Service officials were surprised by the reaction to the expansion proposal.

“We evaluate proposals based on their environmental impact, but these were really social issues,” Forest Service spokesman Pat Thrasher said.

Responding to the opposition, Vail Resorts-owned Breckenridge Ski Resort worked with the town and Summit County to create a task force to find ways to soften the impacts of growth.

The group’s findings will be incorporated into a memorandum of understanding to be included in any U.S. Forest Service permit for Peak 6.

“We are all looking for the same thing ” the best possible outcome for the town and our guests. Look,” said Lucy Kay, the resort’s chief operating officer, “I live here too.”

When Greg Abernathy pulled into town in 1972, Main Street was the sole paved road, there wasn’t a traffic light, the second ski peak had just opened and a lift ticket cost about $7.

“The thing about Breckenridge is that it has always been comfortable in itself ” it’s not Aspen or Vail; beer, not champagne,” said Abernathy, who owns a sporting-goods store. “That’s what we want to keep.”

The first slopes, on Peaks 8 and 9, were followed by Peak 10 to the south and Peak 7 to the north.

Skier visits grew steadily, to more than 1.6 million by the 2007-08 season ” edging Vail for the top spot by about 60,000 visits.

Many of those visitors are families from the Midwest and Southeast, drawn by Breckenridge’s low-key vibe, Abernathy said.

That is a strength but also the problem the resort hopes to solve with Peak 6, Kay said.

While 75 percent of the guests are intermediate skiers, only half the terrain is for them. The expansion to Peak 6 would add 450 acres of expert and intermediate terrain, and a restaurant.

Breckenridge also accommodates more skiers than Vail with less than half the skiable terrain ” 2,358 acres compared with 5,289 acres.

“This isn’t about growth,” Kay said. “We need to spread out the activity. That is what is driving the project.”

This will be the resort’s final terrain expansion, she said, and future growth is projected at about 2 percent a year.

Critics not convinced

That does not assuage everyone. Town Councilman Jeff Bergeron notes that 2 percent a year is still another 32,000 skier visits. “At some point, you’ve got to stop growing,” he said.

Bergeron and his wife, Ellen, who are avid backcountry skiers, led a ballot initiative to dedicate some county property tax to open-space projects.

Peak 6 is a “great backcountry destination,” he said, and in a region seeing its lodgepole pines decimated by pine bark beetles, the spruce and fir on the peak represent some of the healthiest forest in the county.

“If I thought this was really good for us, even if it was bad for backcountry skiing, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Bergeron said.

The real estate boom came to Breckenridge in the 1990s, with the number of housing units doubling to 6,228 between 1990 and 2006.

The houses also have been getting bigger and more expensive.

“In 2001, there were only a few homes in the county selling for more than $1 million. Last year, there were 150,” said Dave Rossi, a Breckenridge town councilman and member of the task force.

It is a boom, said economist Rasker, like other Western booms. “An amenity boom is like an oil and gas boom: It can be destabilizing.”

As land values soar, the town and county embarked on Scandinavian-like public programs ” funded by sales, real estate and hotel taxes ” that included affordable housing, subsidized health care and day-care centers, and free bus service.

“We live in an artificial economy up here, with the average cost of a house at $900,000,” said Breckenridge Town Manager Tim Gagen. “You have to step in if you want to maintain the mountain character of the town.”

Breckenridge has an affordable- housing program with the goal of creating enough deed-restricted housing to cover 45 percent of the town’s workers.

Since 2000, the town has created 400 units of deed-restricted housing. It hopes to build another 900.

When it became clear that child care was a problem, the town began building and subsidizing day-care centers, spending more than $5 million in the past three years.

“We used to lose a lot of young families because Breckenridge was a tough place to make a year-round living,” said Dick Carleton, a 29-year resident and a community member on the task force.

“Now, there are kids in town,” said Carleton, who owns two restaurants and a catering business. “There is a sense the place is thriving.”

Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or

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