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Get Eaton offer out of back room

Steve Pope

Those of you following the saga of the Eaton Ranch issue, more fondly known as the Gravel Pit Protection Program, will recall that the key issues in Don Rogers’ and my columns have centered around the principle of wise land use planning and around the use of Eagle County general fund resources to support the land acquisition. A recent series of events has cast new light on both of these key issues and convinces us that our concerns are valid.As a reminder, our position is that neither of the extreme positions concerning the gravel pit are sound. We do not believe that the pit should be fully protected. Much of it is a flat, mined-out gravel pit in the midst of a developing small urban community. Good land planning would suggest that this portion be developed to provide jobs and houses for the real folks who call the valley home. Developing here can mitigate pressure on truly valuable open space that will be ruined if housing pressure is pushed elsewhere. On the other hand, we do not believe that the parcel of land should be intensely developed. To borrow a phrase, a river runs through it. Much of this parcel should be protected for us and for our grandchildren. The sweet spot, as in most issues, is in the middle. Extremist positions are nearly never correct.Our position concerning the use of Eagle County general fund resources is that they are unnecessary and will be foolishly spent if they are used to protect land that the county commissioners are able to protect through the current Eagle County master plan and the power of the county approval process. All that said, the Vail Daily has told all of the key parties involved in this issue that we would support a reasonable compromise position, even if it involved the use of general fund resources.So get to the point! you are shouting. What are the events, you ask? Twist my arm. Ouch! OK, I’ll tell you.In the past few weeks Harry Frampton and Rick Hermes, once the holder of the option on the gravel pit land, have hammered out a compromise solution. In this middle ground solution, Hermes would contribute a significant portion of land (between 40 and 90 acres, depending on the source) from the B&B gravel operation and surrounding land that make up the 105 acres that he owns a development option on in return for 4 acres of land from the gravel pit protection project. I assume the land Hermes would get is adjacent to the remaining land he would hold from the B&B land. Ten or 20 to one. Doesn’t seem like a bad trade to me, especially since the land Hermes would get is probably up near Highway 6, dead flat and mined out, while the land he would give up, remember that 20 to one ratio, would be down by the river with water, trees and all of the things you and I think of when we think of open land. On top of all of the other benefits Hermes was willing to contribute $400,000 toward the Vail Valley Foundation fundraising effort to purchase the gravel pit property. Sounds pretty good to me. How about to you?So the next part of the story is that Harry Frampton takes the proposal to the county commissioners. Actually he takes it to Arn Menconi and Peter Runyon – separately, not together, which would be an obvious violation of open meeting laws. Each commissioner turns the proposal down. Their rejection was based upon three factors. The first factor is that all of the $400,000 from Hermes would go to the foundation’s fundraising efforts rather than being split with the county. I suspect the commissioners are feeling some real measure of heat for their hasty decision to commit large sums of general fund money, in addition to all of the dedicated open space funds, to the gravel pit and would like to make some face-saving progress to provide political solace. The second factor was that the commissioners believed (probably still do) that they could keep Hermes from developing the B&B parcel through the power of their regulatory control. Now, some of you might remember that the Vail Daily columns have suggested from the start that this power could be effectively applied to protect the portion of the gravel pit that deserved protection. Both Arn and Peter have told me that a significant portion of the reason they voted to spend general fund money on the pit is because they did not trust their power to control development. So what are we to believe? Can they control development on the property or not? Is the truth yes, as in last couple of weeks when they turn down a compromise solution? Or is it no, as in when they spend $6 million of our dollars to protect land they now seem to believe they have the power to protect? The third factor is that the commissioners believed that they could use their political power with the Army Corp of Engineers to deny Hermes the necessary flood plain in-fill permits he would need to develop the lower portion of the B&B parcel. Here again they are deciding against the compromise proposal based upon use of power – the very same power they denied when they voted on the expenditure of county general resources. Hmm! I think I see a trend of conflict here.A more sinister observation is that these events and decisions took place out of the eye of the public. The laws of Colorado, the ones that Arn and Peter are sworn to uphold, clearly dictate that decisions of this type should take place in the open. Closed meetings singly or sequentially with communication in between are illegal in our state. Runyon and Menconi say they have not communicated with other about this, but the result is a compromise solution that somehow is understood to be rejected – without the benefit of a proper meeting of the commissioners. Backroom dealings should be a thing of the past, not of our county’s present. It is ironic that a couple of years ago, I sat with Arn while he discussed his angst over the alleged backroom politics of Commissioners Tom Stone and Michael Gallagher. He knew that if true, it was wrong. He was angry; and he wanted it to stop. How different the picture looks when you are in control. Hmm.The only sensible parties in this sordid trail of events are Harry Frampton and Rick Hermes. The agreement they crafted and presented was the type of middle-ground solution the Vail Daily has been pushing for all along. We applaud them for their efforts and hope that the wise middle ground prevails in the end.What should happen now? From a humorous perspective we suggest that Eagle County turn this into a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Watching Arn and Peter explain how they can spend millions of our dollars with the logic that they do not trust the power of the commissioners to control development, and then explain how the same untrusted power can be basis of logic to reject a compromise solution would be hilarious. It would rival some of SNL’s best Bush-Iraq skits and might even reach the heights of some of the old Clinton-Monica skits. I can’t wait.From a serious perspective, we suggest that Arn and Peter bring the proposal out of the shadows. It should be presented at an open commissioners meeting and fully discussed with the opportunity for full public comment. We suggest that our commissioners (all of them) understand that they are bound by their oath of office to conduct business according to the laws of Colorado. Backroom deals and decisions are unacceptable. We suggest that Arn and Peter apologize to the citizens of Eagle County for their backroom politicking. We suggest that they both embrace the sound compromise proposal. And finally, we suggest that they use the power of their office to resolve this issue so we can all get on to bigger and more important issues.Publisher Steve Pope can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 300, or publisher@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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