Decision on Eaton Ranch Thursday night
EAGLE COUNTY – It’s not that they don’t want open space in Edwards; it’s a matter of how much it will cost Eagle County to help preserve it. That issue will be weighing heavily on the minds of the Eagle County Commissioners tonight as they consider a $6 million request to help purchase 75 acres of riverfront, wetlands and meadows in west Edwards known as Eaton Ranch. The Vail Valley Foundation, a local nonprofit organization, is leading the effort to purchase the $12 million site to prevent it from being developed. There has been an outpouring of public support for the county to meet the request. More than 600 people signed a petition asking the county to contribute the $6 million. That petition ran as a full-page ad in the Vail Daily Wednesday.County employees said they had received about 80 e-mails about Eaton Ranch as of last Friday. “From the very beginning, we said this was about the community,” said Ceil Folz, president of the Foundation. “It is important that everyone weigh in on it.”But there are also complications.There is almost $4 million in the county’s open space fund, said County Administrator Jack Ingstad. That’s not enough to cover the entire request. And taking money from other parts of the county’s budget could be risky business, some believe. But the county must agree to put up the full $6 million for the fund-raising effort to go any further, Foundation officials said.That sense of urgency is having a negative impact, said Commissioner Tom Stone.”I’m wanting to work together with people to come up with a good, reasonable common-sense resolution,” he said. “But you do not arrive at those when you rush the decision and don’t pay attention to the details.”
County Commissioner Peter Runyon, who was elected in November, campaigned on a platform of stricter growth policies in the county and specifically on seeking ways to preserve the Eaton Ranch parcel.
But he is concerned about the legal implications of using money outside the open space fund.Under the Foundation’s deal, the county would own the parcel, but Runyon wants to see a group like the Edwards Metropolitan District maintain the land to quell the widespread belief that Edwards receives too much of the county’s money and attention, he said. “There are going to be on-going costs,” Runyon said. “I’m sure Eagle County could do it, but then once again, Eagle County is taking care of Edwards, when Edwards should be taking care of Edwards.”Why this and why now?Open space advocates aren’t the only ones eyeing this piece of land. Developers Rick Hermes and George Sanders at one time had a purchase contract for the entire 200-acre Eaton Ranch. When that plan fell through, the Foundation stepped in with a year-long purchase option on the 75 acres. The developers, who make up the local firm, Community Concepts, have a purchase contract on the other, westernmost part of the ranch.Some believe Community Concepts has a back-up contract on the land the Foundation is trying to buy in case the fund-raising effort fails. Hermes neither confirmed nor denied that. “We have a standing offer to the Eatons and I am in contact with Bruce Eaton,” he said.
Community Concepts at one time offered to give the Foundation $6 million toward its fund-raising effort. That deal also would have switched some of the land in the Foundation’s contract with some of the land in Community Concepts’ contract. The Foundation said no. “I am not in favor of spending taxpayers’ money for that particular property,” Hermes said. “Being a developer we could accomplish the task of gaining space for public use and open space for preservation without spending a dime of the taxpayer.”But Menconi sees the open space campaign as a “window of opportunity” because there’s no way to predict what a future board of commissioners, or a future developer, might do with that property. “I don’t want to look back and say ‘we could have bought that property for only $6 million,'” he said. The process is being made more difficult because the ranch owners aren’t particularly willing to structure the contract to ensure the land becomes open space, Stone said.Since the Eagle County’s open space tax was approved, the county has used that money only once before to help preserve open space. That was for 4,600 acres of ranch land on the west side of Eagle County known as Bair Ranch. The county contributed $2 million of open space funds for that. Stone cast the lone opposing vote.Nevertheless, the Bair Ranch deal was better than this one, he said. “It may surprise some people to hear me say this, but in Bair Ranch we had a much more reasonable seller in that case,” he said, noting that the Bair family was willing to extend key deadlines to accommodate the county’s decision-making process. “My impression of the Eatons is that they don’t care who buys the property and they don’t care what happens to it. That’s makes for a more difficult solution.”Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or email@example.com.Vail Colorado