Gypsum chips in $20,000 toward Sweetwater purchase
More money may be forthcoming and Gypsum voters may get a say
GYPSUM — Last month members of the Gypsum Town Council pledged their support to the Save the Lake campaign. This week they allocated $20,000 toward the 488-acre Sweetwater Lake Resort land purchase.
The Eagle Valley Land Trust is shepherding local preservation effort for the Sweetwater Lake deal. The price tag for the property is in excess of $9 million. There are dual fundraising efforts currently underway for purchase. The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit land conservation organization, is working with the White River National Forest to request a significant amount of the purchase price from the National Land and Water Conservation Fund. Additionally, there is a $3.5 million local fundraising campaign spearheaded by the land trust that would provide matching funds to spur the federal request.
“This is an incredibly popular project,” said Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Jim Daus during a Tuesday night presentation before the Gypsum council. “We have more partnerships on this than anything I have ever seen.”
But now it’s time to find financial support to match the philosophical backing. Daus asked Gypsum to step up on that front. He noted that Sweetwater Lake is to Gypsum what Piney Lake is to Vail, Maroon Lake is to Aspen and Sylvan Lake is to Eagle.
“You won’t regret funding this,” he told the council. “Someone has to lead. We hope it will be you and it will be big. We are asking you to maybe even give until it hurts a little.”
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Daus noted that, for decades, the Sweetwater Lake Resort was a quasi-public amenity. Boats dotted the natural lake, families camped out at lakeside cabins, schoolchildren hiked up to the Ute Cave and the property was a beloved local recreation destination. That changed last year.
After a development proposal to build more than 240 homes and an 80-room hotel and golf course failed, the original investors took over ownership and shut down access to the lake and cabins and listed the property for sale.
“You can’t enjoy the lake the way you used to. If the owners had their way, they would have sold it to a developer and the signs would have stayed up,” Daus said.
But the Denver-based investment group has agreed to give preservation a chance. The Conservation Fund secured a contract to purchase the property from the sellers amidst competing bids from private developers. A partnership consisting of the Conservation Fund, Eagle Valley Land Trust, the U.S. Forest Service, and community partners has the collective goal to prevent the private development of Sweetwater Lake Resort. Eventually, the property would be sold to the Forest Service and integrated into the surrounding White River National Forest.
But that proposed, eventual ownership, was a rub for some of the folks in Gypsum.
Forest Service concerns
“The idea here is good but I am not really thrilled with just handing this over to the Forest Service,” said Gypsum Town Council member Chris Estes.
Estes noted the Forest Service has curtailed local maintenance operations and has not been responsive to the town’s efforts to provide modest improvements at the LEDE Reservoir site.
Daus responded that the Sweetwater site is a private inholding within the White River National Forest, which makes the Forest Service the logical owner. He added that while the property is accessed through Eagle County, it is actually located in neighboring Garfield County. That means the Eagle County Open Space program cannot take ownership of the land. What’s more, Garfield County doesn’t have a corresponding open space program and Colorado Parks and Wildlife is not a viable alternative, Daus said.
“It’s probably not going to be the Forest Service that will be maintaining it,” Daus added. “We think the Forest Service is excited about issuing a resort permit on the property.”
A resort permit could have a 40-year term and it would outline how the property would be operated as a recreational amenity, Daus said. He pointed to Trapper’s Lake as an example of a permitted operation.
In response to Daus’s appeal, the Gypsum Town Council approved a $20,000 donation. More money may be coming and Gypsum voters may have the opportunity to weigh in on the matter.
Gypsum Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann noted that a municipal election is planned in April and the town could take the donation request directly to the voters.
Council members voiced general support for that idea, noting that because an election is already planned, it wouldn’t cost anything extra to ask voters if they supported Gypsum allocating money toward the Save the Lake campaign. Specifics of the ballot question language and the contribution amount will be the subject of future discussion.