Town, Vail Mountain School collaborate to alleviate traffic concerns
The parties are working to revise a permit issued 22 years ago
While Vail Mountain School has been in operation for nearly 60 years, recent growth in Eagle County has led to a steady growth of enrollment over the past two decades. With this growth, traffic conditions on the North Frontage Road during school drop-off and pickup have become increasingly congested.
“Over the last 15 years, as Vail and the communities west of Dowd Junction have grown, so has the demand for the option of a Vail Mountain School education. Vail Mountain School’s campus growth, both its physical building and programming, was a natural evolution of the enrollment growth,” said Kristin Kenney Williams, a spokesperson for Vail Mountain School.
Recently, these traffic conditions became a topic of discussion during the Vail Town Council’s condemnation proceedings for a housing project on an East Vail parcel near the school.
“When are we going to address the problem with Vail Mountain School and the over-enrollment, the traffic out there?” asked Dave Chapin, the town’s former mayor, at the May 3 Town Council meeting. “People want to talk about traffic, let’s talk about that … I’d like to see some action out there.”
This sentiment was reiterated in public comments on the East Vail housing proposal, and touched upon traffic impacts surrounding the school to residents. Resident Bob Essin put it simply: “The traffic pattern around the school is a negative.”
Both the town and school have begun making progress to address these traffic conditions, the root of which revolve around revising a Conditional Use Permit issued in 2000 when the school began redevelopment of the East Vail campus including a new facility as well as parking and recreational improvements.
Slipping through the cracks
Vail Mountain School received a Conditional Use Permit from the town of Vail 22 years ago in which six conditions of approval were included. According to Matt Gennett, Vail’s community development director, the school met five of these six conditions. These included granting certain easements to town, constructing an employee housing unit, bike path alignment and more.
The unresolved sixth condition, however, dealt with the school’s enrollment.
“If future student enrollment exceeds 330 students, the applicant will be required to appear before the Planning and Environmental Commission, for a revised Conditional Use Permit,” read the sixth condition.
According to the school, enrollment has exceeded this number since 2007. However, Gennett said the town didn’t become aware of both this condition and the fact that the school had exceeded it until recent years. The town learned about it “by word of mouth, anecdotally,” he said.
The reason that this slipped through the cracks for almost 15 years — as stated by Gennett and Kenney Williams — is that leadership at both the school and town had shifted over the decades and both were unaware of its existence.
“It was more of something that was forgotten or was never followed up with,” Gennett said.
The condition, Gennett said, was also vague and didn’t have any of the details or tracking mechanisms that these conditions of approvals receive now, 22 years later.
“It was a long, long time ago and the way it was written, there was really nothing that had all of that detail in there — exactly why this condition is important and what it’s meant to address and how it’s supposed to be remedied,” Gennett said, adding that now, new conditions of approval establish exactly what needs to be done, by who and at what time. Plus, automation software allows town staff to track such conditions.
This ambiguity also means that there hasn’t been discussion of any penalties for failure to comply with the condition, as neither the town nor the school followed up those for nearly 15 years. Rather, Gennett said both the town and school are focused on now coming together to “figure out how we’re going to handle this and what really is at the core of the issue.”
In order to determine how to move forward and address the condition, Gennett said that town staff went back to look at Planning and Environmental Commission meeting minutes from 2000 to establish the intent of the condition of approval around enrollment.
“It was really mostly about the traffic impacts on the North Frontage Road,” Gennett said.
“In order to stay below the CDOT threshold for building turn lanes on the Frontage Road, the school’s student population was limited to 330 students,” Kenney Williams added.
Now with an awareness of both the condition and knowledge of its intended purpose, Vail and Vail Mountain School are working toward a solution.
“It really comes back to making sure that the right message and means are in place to handle the traffic load — which again, really only occurs twice a day during the school year when parents come and drop off students and come back and pick them up,” Gennett said. “(Vail Mountain School is) working in good faith to address really what the condition of approval was written to address.”
Part of this good faith includes improvements that the school has already started to implement. First, it increased education, awareness and monitoring of the traffic conditions around the school. In February, it also launched a school carpool app in an effort to encourage parents and students to form carpools, walk-pools and bike-pools. The school has also continued a partnership with Vail Police to ensure smooth traffic flow at afternoon pickup.
Also, while not directly related to school pickup and drop-off traffic, the school — at the request of the town — will no longer allow parking for skiers and hikers in an attempt to encourage use of buses rather than cars. It’s a move that ultimately could alleviate traffic concerns.
“We are committed to helping solve traffic delays: Traffic is recognized during the drop-off and pick-up time periods when school is in session (about 170 days a year). There is a 25-minute period in the mornings, and a 30-minute period in the afternoon. The afternoons are when the backup problems exist. VMS is not alone in generating traffic impact: More than 20,000 cars used the VMS parking lot last summer for trail access,” Kenney Williams said.
And in addressing the concerns further, the matter is scheduled to go before the town’s Planning and Environment Commission at its May 23 meeting.
“VMS wants to honor the school enrollment condition of approval with a cap and traffic enhancements,” Kenney Williams said. “VMS is requesting both that the limit be increased to and capped at 450 students, in addition to parking and traffic improvements, to reflect a sustainable enrollment maximum.”
This cap of 450 students, Kenney Williams added, reflects the “sustainable level of enrollment that meets the school’s mission” and is what the enrollment has been at for the past six years.
“We are at capacity at 450 students — our campus culture, with the campus expansion in 2005, supports our mission. And to clarify, we replace about 25% of students each year. We won’t be asking down the road for a new enrollment cap beyond 450,” she said.
Gennett said this new cap is “something we are working through to make sure it’s the right number.”
In additional to requesting this new cap, the school also has two main proposals for addressing the parking and traffic conditions.
“For an expected two to four week period this summer, we will be making internal parking lot improvements to further enhance traffic flow once school resumes in the fall. The improvements likely include adding a new exit lane so that there are both left and right turn lanes at the current exit,” Kinney Williams said.
The second proposal will be a little more complicated as it will require not only approval by the town’s Planning and Environmental Commission, but also by the Colorado Department of Transportation. This proposal includes updates to the North Frontage road — mainly turn lanes, Gennett said.
“This takes a lot of time to work with CDOT, so in the meantime, the applicant has been diligent and has worked with CDOT, first doing traffic counts, traffic studies, figuring out ways and methods to really handle the traffic load,” he said.
At the May 23 meeting, Gennett said the commission will be asked to approve not only the revision to the Conditional Use Permit, but also to approve the school’s proposed phased approach. This approach includes the parking and circulation improvements as phase one as well as proposed designs for CDOT on the Frontage Road turn lane improvements as phase two.
While there have been some conversations on where the financial responsibility lies on these improvements, Gennett said no determination has been made yet.
And learning from the vagueness of the first condition of approval, he added that the parties will ensure “that there’s no loose, ambiguous condition out there that could get lost over the course of decades.”
“The way this revised Conditional Use Permit will be written will be very air tight and clear and tracked through our system today,” he said.
“We’re working well together to make sure that we’re following through with the intent of the condition on the Conditional Use Permit and that we’re doing this in the best interest of the community to make sure that things are done correctly,” Gennett said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.