Judge rules against Vail in Gilman case
The largest private parcel of land in eastern Eagle County now seems less likely to be preserved entirely as open space after a district court ruling Wednesday.The strange and twisted tale of the Gilman Tract took a dramatic turn Sept. 24 when judge David Lass ruled in favor of Turkey Creek LLC in its lawsuit against Vail Associates.In a long-awaited conclusion to a tangle of litigation first launched in November 1999, Lass found that Vail, doing business as Forest Ridge Holdings, repudiated its 1992 contract (a 50-percent option) with Turkey Creek by “not committing to prompt and diligent development of the property.”He also ruled that Turkey Creek was entitled to declaratory judgment because development of the parcel “did not include a conservation strategy,” which is what Vail officials had in mind for the politically sensitive property.”We’re obviously very pleased with the outcome of the case, but we’re particularly pleased with the thoroughness of the court’s analysis,” says Skip Netzorg, an attorney for Turkey Creek who refused to discuss his clients’ future plans for the parcel now that they control it 100 percent. Vail officials did not return calls requesting comment.Situated between the towns of Minturn and Red Cliff, the 6,000-acre parcel straddles U.S. Highway 24, encompassing the abandoned mining town of Gilman and stretching northeast to within a mile of Vail’s Blue Sky Basin ski expansion, which opened in January 2000.A patchwork of old mining claims on the backside of Vail Mountain, the tract was once described by a federal judge as one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in North America. That’s debatable, but it’s definitely the largest private parcel in eastern Eagle County.Gilman was a high-altitude hornet’s nest that repeatedly stung Vail during the lengthy federal approval process for its controversial expansion project, then known as Category III. Environmentalists used it as a rallying cry in their bitter battle to halt the project, pointing to Gilman as a future high-end, ski-in, ski-out gated community they claimed would ultimately be connected by a gondola to Category III.Calling development plans for Gilman a “red herring,” Vail officials ultimately began talking about a conservation easement for the problematic parcel, which is made up of steep slopes, some higher than 10,000 feet, and in places is an EPA Superfund Cleanup site because of old mine tailings.Still, it is remote, scenic and, according to Forest Service officials, valuable wildlife habitat. Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, hopes Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t mean the conservation strategy is now dead.”Because it is such a pristine and significant parcel of land, we would hope that at some point we would have the opportunity to at least present conservation options to Turkey Creek and work with them in partnership to protect as much of that parcel as open space as possible,” Cohagen says.The ski company had originally entered into a contract with Turkey Creek comprised of two Denver lawyers who painstakingly pieced the parcel together under the regime of former Vail owner George Gillett in the early 1990s.Vail had a 50-percent option to develop the parcel in conjunction with Turkey Creek, the brainchild of Denver attorneys Jim Aronstein and Michael Page, and initially seemed intent on doing just that.In testimony at the civil trial in Eagle County District Court in the spring of 2001, several former and current Vail executives revealed that development plans had been drawn up as early as 1994, mostly around Bolts Lake just south of Minturn and west of Highway 24.But by 1998, when a firestorm or controversy was swirling around Vail’s 885-acre Category III ski expansion a wave of acrimony that led to a real firestorm with the torching of several Vail structures and lifts in October ski company officials began floating the concept of conservation.In May of 1998, Turkey Creek and Vail appeared close to resolving their differences, according to court testimony, when Aronstein proposed developing the area around Bolts Lake and conveying the upper benches of the parcel to a public trust for at least $12 million.But he also wanted to use the conservation easement as leverage to obtain a ski connection through Forest Service land to Category III. Vail officials wanted to take a more passive position on the evolving White River National Forest Plan, urging more recreational use of the forest but not specifically lobbying for a lift connection between their expansion and the Gilman Tract.Such a strategy would serve to deflect the intense criticism the ski company was getting from some local residents and from environmentalists about its true motivations for developing Category III.In his ruling, Lass writes that, “contrary to the agreement of the parties, VA used the conservation strategy to advance its own public relations purposes and to enhance its own interests in achieving the Cat III expansion.”Finally, Vail’s board of directors in October 1998 decided to exercise its option in a bid to maintain some control over the parcel and recoup some of its $4.5 million investment. Turkey Creek refused the ski company’s $5,000 check and sued a year later in Denver District Court. Vail counter-sued, and the case was moved to Eagle County District Court in 2000.Lass ruled Vail no longer has any interest in the property, 50 percent or otherwise, and that Turkey Creek will receive all the funds currently being held by the court for “necessary holdings costs,” plus interest.
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