Eaton an expensive proposition |

Eaton an expensive proposition

Steve Pope

I’m really trying, but I still don’t understand this Eaton Ranch deal. Let’s forget the fact that this deal is being presented as an all-or-nothing decision. We all know that most things in life aren’t that way unless one of the parties refuses to consider a better solution. Let’s forget that this is land that the voters, that’s us folks, have already decided that we want to fund open space through our open space tax and not through the county general fund.Let’s forget that this proposed open space flies in the face of sound development theory. Let’s also forget that it is a decision that will likely only lead to leapfrog development, which is exactly the type of building the proponents of the Eaton purchase say they are trying to avoid.Let’s forget that the purchase flies in the face of a very well thought out master plan. Let’s also forget that most of the proponents of the Eaton purchase preach on the pulpit of following the county master plan and following the will of the voters.Let’s also forget the fact that the land is a mined-out gravel pit that has been an eyesore for the valley for as long as most of us can remember. While we are at it, let’s forget that it lies in the middle of a couple of not-so-pretty lumber yards, a couple of well-established trailer parks providing much-needed employee housing, and lies right in the midst of Edwards, which in many respects is the only real town in the valley.Let’s forget that a good portion of the land proposed for purchase would be protected by law anyway. We should also forget that the county commissioners would have a large measure of control over how any development would play out on the land. At least they would if they had the intestinal fortitude to exercise their legitimate power.Now that we have forgotten ourselves into a coma, let’s take a look at the economics of the situation. This economics perspective tells me that this is potentially the biggest boondoggle in the history of our fair county. Why, you ask? How can that be? Can our leaders be so misled? Well check out these comparisons and see if you don’t come to the same conclusion.At face value, the Eaton Ranch purchase will give the county ownership of 72 acres of open space. Frankly it is not a large amount of land. But the price by local standards is enormous. The purchase price for the entire property of $12 million works out at a per acre price of $166,667 per acre. When you factor in that some of the land is already protected by law, the price rises even higher.This $166,667 per acre price buys us a piece of flat land lodged between a major state highway and a heavily traveled Interstate. The land has little environmental value. It certainly is not pristine. It is surrounded by development, and any animals that cross it are already comfortable crossing our lawns and eating our flowers. The benefit is minimal. Even with the addition of three inches of topsoil, a few pounds of grass seed and some asphalt walking paths, it will still be a relatively ugly, albeit green, mined-out gravel pit.To get a sense of the futility of this proposed purchase, let’s look at some other conservation projects completed over the past couple of years. Actually let’s look at all of the projects I could find. I think you will find the Eaton boondoggle pales by comparison in value.In 2004 a number of parties were successful in purchasing a conservation easement on the Bair Ranch. It is hard to dispute that this pristine land has enormous environmental value and also provides a wonderful front door into the Eagle Valley. This newspaper strongly supported the Bair Ranch project.So how much did this Bair Ranch easement cost, you ask? The purchase price of $5.1 million secured 4,830 acres in perpetual, high value open space. Do the math with me and you will find that it works out to $1,056 per acre. No that is not a misprint! $1,056 per acre for pristine land protection, as opposed to $166,667 per acre for a mined-out gravel pit. You make the call as to which deal is a good one.Vail Resorts also closed a protection purchase at Vasser Meadows in 2004. This land was also pristine, and as Cindy Cohagen told me at the time of the purchase, was a vital migration route for deer and elk. This parcel was smaller at 357 acres and the price was $4.7 million. Again, do the math with me and you will find the purchase price was $13,165 per acre. And this is truly pristine, important land!The Boulder Conservation Trust completed a related purchase in 2004 buying 118 acres for $1.6 million. The math works out to $13,559 per acre. You know I am going to remind you that this is pristine, environmentally important land.A little farther afield, a protective easement was purchased on the Harvey Ranch in Snowmass. For you folks who don’t get over there too often, Snowmass is pretty pricey territory. So you ask wisely, what were the details on this purchase? 1,840 acres for $2 million, I reply. I bet your calculator tells you it works out to $1,087 per acre. Yes it is pristine land, yes it is environmentally valuable, and no, it was not a mined-out gravel pit. I think I see a trend forming.Another year back the Child Ranch in Snowmass was also put under a protection easement. Remember, this is pricey territory. The purchase was 1,480 acres for a grand sum of $3 million. Your calculator is smoking now when it returns the answer of $2,027 per acre. Wow, that is almost double the price for the Harvey Ranch. But it is only a little more than 1 percent of the price per acre our commissioners and the Vail Valley Foundation want us to pay for the gravel pit. You note that I said they want us to pay. All of this money, whether from the open space fund, the county general fund, from the GOCO fund or from our donations comes from us. They are spending it for us. Maybe the residual gravel has a lot more worth than I ever imagined.The last parcel I’ll tell you about, I know your calculator is tired, is the Westermann parcel at the top of Tennessee Pass. This parcel, about 200 acres, is a gem. The protective easement cost $282,000. That’s $1,410 per acre for the best piece in this collection. The price was only eight-tenths of 1 percent of the price per acre for the Eaton parcel.So help me out. Why would we consider spending $166,667 per acre for land that is marginal at best? Why would we make a purchase, at ridiculous prices, of land that has minimal environmental worth? Heck, it’s not even all that pretty. Why would we risk all of those downsides I asked you to forget at the beginning of this column? More importantly, why wouldn’t we take $12 million and use it to buy real open space. Land that hasn’t been trashed for years. Land that animals still use as vital pathways. Land that is at risk for development in areas that should not be developed. Land that isn’t stupidly overpriced. Instead of 72 marginal acres why can’t we get wise and buy over a thousand important acres? Why don’t we do this for our grandchildren? Why? You tell me.Publisher Steve Pope can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 300, or publisher@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado

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