Gustafson lifted up airport, defended water |

Gustafson lifted up airport, defended water

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Vail Daily photoDick Gustafson

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Edwards was still a budding outpost, and the airport consisted of a 60-foot wide runway when Dick Gustafson became an Eagle County commissioner in the mid-80s.

The longtime Vail resident said he considers some of the most significant work during his two terms to be bringing in funds for airport expansion and helping win a water rights case against Front Range cities to keep water in the county.

Now, Gustafson, a Republican who is running against incumbent Peter Runyon for the District 1 seat, said he thinks more work needs to be done by the county government.

Gustafson said he took on the airport expansion project because he saw potential for growth with many private jets flying in and tourists flocking to the slopes.

At the time, Federal Aviation Administration told the county that the airport did not have enough activity to qualify for federal funding. Gustafson went to Washington, D.C., spoke with aviation and military officials, and eventually brokered a deal that brought the High Altitude Training facility and National Guard Armory to Eagle.

The county had committed to buying the land and paying for the cost to build the facility, but both ended up being donated, Gustafson said.

With the increased air traffic from the training facility, the Eagle County Airport qualified for more than $20 million of FAA grants for expansion, he said.

The expansion allowed larger, commercial planes to land at the airport and also added a taxiway.

After Gustafson left office, the board of county commissioners hired him to lobby for funds for an airport control tower and radar.

“We had a difficult time finding our way through the government maze to get the radar,” said former commissioner Tom Stone. “He got the control tower built,”

As a former member of the Colorado River District water board, Gustafson also was instrumental in winning a drawn-out dispute with Front Range communities over water rights in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

Aurora and Colorado Springs wanted to develop and divert the water in Eagle County, and the case went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. Eagle County won the case, a decision that some local residents consider a victory for local governments against larger Front Range cities.

“That case set legal precedents forever when it came to the rights of county commissioners to regulate water development within their counties,” Stone said.

Gustafson also created the Eagle River Water Assembly, a forum of all water-rights owners along the Eagle River.

Gustafson and the board at the time also oversaw the completion of the Justice Center and the Eagle County Administration Building.

Both were built within a tight budget and the County Building was put to a public vote, he said.

It is an issue that has come up again in the current election ” now county officials say the county has outgrown the Justice Center and wants to build a more than $20 million expansion of the center.

Gustafson has criticized the cost of the expansion.

“What do they want, the Taj Mahal for a Justice Center?” he said.

Gustafson and the board approved the Berry Creek purchase ” what was eventually to become Miller Ranch and Freedom Park. However, commissioners had to find some creative ways to purchase the land, said Stone, whose board later built the park and affordable neighborhood.

“The board then had a vision, but the valley was going through some very difficult financial times and voters turned it down,” he said.

Gustafson and commissioners worked out a deal for the town of Vail to buy the land, and later the county paid the town back in full for it.

The most controversial decision he made was approving development at Cordillera, Gustafson said.

Gustafson sided with the development, but some Squaw Creek Road and Lake Creek residents opposed the project, saying it would ruin the quietness of the area and bring too much traffic.

Suzie Shepard, who lived on Squaw Creek Road at the time, said she felt the plans for Cordillera were too dense and that Gustafson ignored Edward’s master plan to approve the project.

“It was very beautiful, and there was a lot of wildlife. That (development) wasn’t my idea of rural living,” she said of the area at the time. “There were a lot of negatives about that project. I think (the commissioners) were persuaded by the developers.”

Don Welch, another commissioner at the time, said he voted against the development because it did not quite fit with the plan for growth the commissioners had envisioned for Edwards.

The plan was for the most dense development and businesses to be at the town center, and for increasingly spread out development further from the core, Welch said.

Gustafson said he thought Cordillera was a good project, especially after developers agreed to a public access golf course and to provide good traffic access via Squaw Creek Road.

“The county got a good development. I’d probably make the same decision on it now,” he said.

Gustafson and the board also approved plans for Riverwalk in Edwards. The original plans called for a large, completely enclosed, mall, but Gustafson said the board asked for something different.

“We said no, that we wanted separate buildings and more of a downtown feel,” he said.

Gustafson said that while he was in office that he kept property taxes almost constant, with low or zero increases as property values went up. He also pointed out that when spending for building or improvement projects, he was able to negotiate deals with developers or get grants.

The ballfields and fairgrounds in Eagle were part of a deal from developers, and the airport project was accomplished almost completely from grants, he said.

“I like getting great things for the county for free,” he said.

Both Stone and Welch agreed he was a savvy policy maker and moderate spender.

“He’s a very fiscally responsible official,” Stone said.

However, Republican Don Cohen, of the Eagle County Economic Business Council, said that in all aspects of the job, being a county commissioner now is a “whole new ball game.”

No one then envisioned the growth the county is experiencing now, and there are new pressing issues, such as housing and traffic.

“Just because you were successful then doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the same now,” he said. “There would still be a learning curve.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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