Critics say open space could’ve been cheaper
EDWARDS – To some, it sure seemed like a good idea at first.A local developer offers $6 million to help preserve open space in Edwards, and even plans to throw in few dozen more acres to seal the deal.But when Rick Hermes and George Sanders of Community Concepts made their offer last fall, they were promptly turned down. The Vail Valley Foundation, which is leading the effort to raise $12 million to purchase and preserve 72 acres of land on Edwards’ Eaton Ranch, points to several reasons why they passed up free money and extra land. Most of all, Community Concepts had a purchase contract on land west of the proposed open space. Their land, while larger, consists of largely wetlands and floodplain. Their deal was contingent on switching some of their undevelopable land for the prime real estate included in the foundation’s contract.Accepting the deal would be assisting development, which went against what the foundation was trying to do, said Ceil Folz, president of the foundation. Could Community Concepts develop the land it hopes to buy? It’s a question without certain answers. But it’s a question that came up during Thursday night’s meeting in which the Board of County Commissioners voted to give $6 million to the foundation to help the open space fund-raising effort.
Depending on your point-of-view, the possibility of development on Community Concepts’ contract land made Thursday night’s decision either smart or in serious need of review. Bang for the buckFor proponent Brian Sipes, an Avon town councilman, the foundation’s efforts will save more than just 72 acres from development. Much of Community Concepts land can’t be developed, Sipes said during Thursday night’s meeting. And by taking prime development land off the market, commercial buildings and homes could be built on only a small portion of Eaton Ranch. With that in mind, the county’s $6 million essentially was helping preserve about 150 to 200 acres of Eaton Ranch, Folz said. By the same token, critics of the county’s decision believe the foundation could have accepted Community Concepts’ offer and come out ahead. Edwards resident Dave Huffman said Eagle County would have gotten more open space for less money. With the developer’s contribution in hand, Eagle County wouldn’t have had to spend anything, he said. The developer wouldn’t be able to build on land surrounding the river anyway, said Suzi Apple, who also spoke out against the foundation’s request.
For County Commissioner Arn Menconi, who voted in favor of the foundation’s request, banking on a developer’s plans was just too much of a risk. He pointed to the Village at Avon. Avon town officials attempted to purchase that land and preserve it as open space but couldn’t get the financing together. Now the land, on the eastern edge of town, has two big box stores with more development to come, much to some residents’ dismay. “I don’t want to look back and say, ‘We could have bought that property for only $6 million,'” Menconi said in an interview Wednesday, before the vote.Development unlikelyIn truth, development in wetlands and floodplain have occurred in Eagle County. But it’s rare, said Keith Montag, the county’s top planner. Developers who want to build on wetlands must weave through state and federal red tape.The Army Corps of Engineers must give permission for a developer to disturb any wetlands. And wetlands that are disturbed must be replaced elsewhere, and twice as many as destroyed must be restored. As an example, the Frost Creek development south of Eagle will disturb less than an acre of wetlands, Montag said. “They are going to have to recreate them somewhere else,” he said.
County regulations require any development to be out of the 100-year floodplain – area near rivers that have flooded in the past 100 years – or 50 feet away from the river’s high water mark. The greater of those two will determine where development can be, Montag said. The Two River project in Dotsero is an example of development done in 100-year floodplain. That developer was only permitted to do so after obtaining various permits from the county, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Montag said. Even then, the developer was forced to bring in dirt and elevate the development in the floodplain as a precaution, he said. “It’s somewhat unique and somewhat unusual to do that type of fill at that magnitude,” Montag said. And then there’s always the power of negotiation. Any developer wishing to build in Eagle County must obtain the approval of the Board of County Commissioners first. Eagle Mayor Jon Stavney pointed out that his board was able to work a deal with the developers of Eagle Ranch that provided plenty of amenities for the town. Eagle Ranch has a park, a community center, a playground and a walking path. “A lot of good can be accomplished with working with a developer,” he said. Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or firstname.lastname@example.org.