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Eaton deal squanders open space funds

Allen Best

Pardon me for saying anything derogatory about open space, because I do worship at the shrine of landscapes uncluttered with concrete, wallboard and asphalt. Still, when I read that the Eagle County commissioners had emptied their piggy bank to buy the Eaton Ranch, I was distressed.If the Bair Ranch in Glenwood Canyon was forward thinking, the Eaton Ranch at Edwards is backward thinking. Preserving open space on the front lines of development is costly. Given only so much money available for preservation, this purchase represents squandering other opportunities for what amounts to a giant pocket park.The development die was cast at Edwards 10 or 11 years ago. That’s yesterday’s battle. The most economical opportunities for preservation in Eagle County are now to the west and perhaps north. That’s where the county’s money should go.I do understand why people would want to preserve the Eaton Ranch. For years I moaned as first one project and then another blotted up that valley bottom. The view there of New York Mountain, Gold Dust Peak and other mountains is one of Eagle County’s treasures in a place with a great many visual treats.People tell me it’s delightful to walk along the Eagle River in this remaining jewel of 72 acres, and I don’t doubt it. This chunk of land is just big enough that you forget you’re almost in somebody’s back yard. That all open spaces should be that broad!The precedent, I suppose, is Vail’s open space. Bucking popular sentiment, some of Vail’s strongest leaders in the 1970s risked their political futures in imposing a real-estate transfer tax. That belt of greenery separating main Vail from East Vail certainly was forward thinking.There is a compelling argument in favor of the Eaton Ranch purchase in the form of millions being marshaled by the Vail Valley Foundation. It’s hard to walk away from that kind of privately-donated money.But from what is the county walking away by allocating its open space funds at Edwards? My fear is that the development incentive, big bucks, will next chew on such places as the Horn Ranch. That’s the place west of Wolcott, just before entering Red Gorge, where you often see horses grazing. There are many such pastoral gems in Eagle County. Not all can be saved, which is why it’s so important to figure out where maximum benefit can be derived.At $160,000 an acre, I’m dubious that the biggest bang for the bank is at the Eaton Ranch. Why not spend that money at $10,000 to $20,000 an acre for other places now, before development pressures arrive and prices escalate?The Eaton Ranch is next to an interstate exit. Better to have development adjacent to existing transportation routes than in a place that requires new roads or expansion of existing ones. Better, for example, to have development at Edwards than out by the county landfill.With the Eaton Ranch, we essentially have a save-my-backward impulse when the times call for a more broad, regional approach. I don’t buy this talk that Eagle and Gypsum should be getting some of the county money as a measure of fairness. Nor would I buy the argument that the money should go upvalley of Wolcott because that’s where the vast, vast, vast majority of taxes are collected. Both arguments are provincial and petty. The real criterion for allocating money should be what best serves the interests of Eagle County into the future. The Eaton Ranch is not a terrible mistake. But based on what I know, it would not have received my vote.Allen Best has covered the Vail Valley for every paper in the valley for over two decades. He specializes in environmental reporting. Vail, Colorado


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