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Land swap creeping along

Cliff Thompson

Three separate exchanges rolled into one, the proposed swap involves approximately 1,100 acres, multiple parties, conservation easements – even some affordable housing – the deal could be completed by summer.

The Vassar Meadows/West Avon land exchange has been slowed by difficult access to 40 acres just west of Avon envisioned by Vail Resorts as a site for up to 400 housing units priced from $170,000 to $300,000. Vail Resorts has been key in helping the multi-party, multi-parcel land exchange along by supplying a $2 million interest-free loan to hold the land until an exchange could be worked out.

The seeming glacial pace of the project underscores the difficulty of land swaps in general, said Jack Lewis, housing director for Vail Resorts.

“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

The swap involved 509 acres of private land at Vassar Meadows, adjacent to Brush Creek near Yeoman Park, south of Eagle, that will be traded to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for 480 acres in west Avon north of Interstate 70 and other, smaller parcels of land near Eagle-Vail and Avon. Approximately 40 acres of the 480 will be used for affordable housing by Vail Resorts, and Lewis said it’s his guess the earliest any construction would begin would be the summer of 2004.

The rest of the property, he said, will be protected by a conservation easement.

Sticking point

Access to the affordable housing parcel in west Avon is pivotal to the entire exchange, said Lewis, because the deal is contingent upon the resort operator being able to develop the property. Vail Resorts had proposed accessing it by creating a road along the interstate, but federal and state highway officials turned their thumbs down on that because of safety and other considerations, said Dan Roussin, permit manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Vail Resorts now is looking at accessing the parcel through private land by possibly extending Nottingham Road, Lewis said. The details of that are being ironed out, he said.

The Forest Service is keenly interested in the Vassar Meadows parcel, which was at one time eyed for development as part of the now abandoned plan to build Adam’s Rib ski area 18 miles south of Eagle.

Land swaps are like an elaborate card game in which keeping your best cards until you need them is the key to coming out ahead.

“The Vassar Meadows parcel is our highest priority,” said Barry Sheakley of the Forest Service. “On a scale of 100, Vassar is a 98 and the next nearest parcel is about a 42. It has tremendous values. It’s going to happen before we commit to anything else so we don’t trade away other assets.”

Complications

When public lands, such as the White River National Forest, were created, some of the boundary lines drawn accommodated agricultural and mineral interests. Now those parcels are “landlocked” within forest boundaries and the Forest Service is interested in acquiring them by swapping for parcels of land elsewhere that bound the forest.

Land exchanges are typically complicated enough that most seeking them use the services of private companies that specialize in them. Shaekley said the paper generated so far by the process on this exchange stacks up more than a foot tall.

It’s being guided through he process by the Boulder-based Conservation Fund, which helped pull together funding partners, tradable parcels and conservation easements.

Land-exchange proposals are made every year. For example, Vail Resorts also wants to acquire three or more acres near the Vista Bahn, just south of Bridge Street in Vail, for its Front Door project that will include new base facilities, loading and unloading facilities, new office space and 16 fractional-fee units. In exchange, the company is proposing to give the Forest Service 136 acres near South Game Creek, north of Minturn, and 160 acres at Mud Springs, south of Arrowhead.

The land at the base of Vail Mountain could carry a $75 million price tag once developed. Vail Resorts is using Western Lands Group to facilitate the Front Door exchange.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com.


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