Loving the high country to death?
DILLON” Nearly two decades ago, Mitzie Hawkins was in her Keystone home when her husband, Lex, called to give her some news: Someone had just made a very tantalizing offer on their house.
Even though the house, which sat near the Keystone Ranch Golf Course, wasn’t on the market, the prime piece of real estate had garnered interest, and the couple reluctantly decided to sell.
“I was feeling very bad and very sorry for myself, so I decided to take a drive,” Mitzie Hawkins said. “And for no apparent reason, I turned into Summerwood. I drove up the hill and saw the lot for sale and thought, ‘Thank you God. You’ve found me a new spot for my house.'”
Standing in the empty lot at the edge of a cliff overlooking a finger of Lake Dillon and facing jagged mountain peaks, Mitzie Hawkins envisioned the home she could create there. Fifteen years later, she is still enjoying the picturesque views ” now secured by the railing on her deck ” as she splits her time between Dillon and Arizona.
Hawkins’ story of literally moving on up is growing more and more common. As ski resort towns grow, the valleys that house people are filling up, and many full-time residents and second-home owners are moving up the hillsides to escape the crowds.
Peace and quiet may be good for the soul, but what’s the tradeoff? The serenity and natural beauty of large home plots in remote locales come at a price, taking a toll on the environment and the people paying to keep their homes alive and functioning.
After raising a family on the East Coast, Anne Mintz, a Dallas native, wanted a rural retreat. But the main motivation for moving higher up the slopes is the scenery, said Mintz and those who have joined her at a higher altitude agree.
“The views are wonderful up here,” Mintz said from her home in the upscale Mountain Star neighborhood in Avon. “There are people who want to live in the action and people who want to live in the country. This is the country.”
Hawkins said when she built her home, she designed it so every window showed off a postcard-perfect view.
Fred Bapp, a counselor with Colorado West Mental Health, said he understands the urge to get away from it all, “but I’m not going to generalize and say it’s better for everybody.” Bapp traded Dallas for the Vail Valley in 1983 and hasn’t looked back.
“Part of the attraction of moving here was the beauty of it, but also the freedom from congestion of having to take 30 minutes to an hour to get home after work,” he said.
“When you just have thousands and thousands of cars competing for space, that’s real stressful,” Bapp said. “You know where the benefits are for you with the green space and the beautiful mountains and not having to take an hour to get back and forth from your job.”
But building in these more remote sites is a literal and figurative balancing act, as environmentalists try to instill green values into people who are more focused on what sort of tile to use in their kitchens.
While second-home owners catch on, most don’t hear the message encouraging them to weigh the benefits of living in the pristine wilderness against the harmful effects that development inevitably has on nature, environmentalists and conservationists said.
Homes that border wide open spaces range from small trailers to colossal mansions, but houses today are on average four times larger than they were 30 years ago, said Matt Scherr, the executive director of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability.
“American largeness is our greatest problem,” Scherr said. “And those large homes require an enormous amount of energy just to stay alive.”
That’s in addition to the greater amount of land and materials a big house uses, he said.
While what constitutes a large house is up for debate, East Coast transplant Ron Wolfe, who is now the mayor of Avon, said his more than 7,000-square-foot Mountain Star home is a good fit for him and his wife, Valerie, and the entertaining they do.
“Between hermit-ry, with limited creature comforts, and extravagance, I think we’re in a reasonable zone,” Wolfe said.
Hawkins said her home is spacious at about 7,500 square feet. A typical local duplex, on the other hand, is often between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet.
Finding people their ideal of luxury and comfort has become a booming industry in ski resort towns.
Heidi Houston, the president of Houston and Gorog, an Aspen home sales and rental company, recently catered to a client who wanted a home site on a river, with big trees and no other houses in sight. The catch? He also wanted to be close to the city of Aspen.
“A lot of people want to feel like they’re 100 miles away, but don’t actually want to be that far away,” Houston said.
Home owners like Wolfe, Hawkins and Mintz are unapologetic about where they’ve chosen to build their home. By moving up instead of out, they’re still close to all the amenities in the valleys. They like where they live, and they wouldn’t trade it for a condo on the valley floor.
Sandy Greenhut, a Dillon transplant who lives in the same Summerwood neighborhood as Hawkins, said because the land was zoned for homes, she felt fine about building there.
“We weren’t making an environmental impact on it,” said Greenhut, adding she wanted to include solar panels in the home, but the government didn’t offer any tax credits for it like they had when she built a home in Indiana. “I don’t believe in stopping progress. You either have to grow or go backwards.”
Hawkins said she felt justified in building on the edge of a cliff because there were already homes in the area.
“But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t environmentally conscious,” Hawkins said.
Although they didn’t employ any environmentally friendly building methods or materials when their houses went up, they said they recycle and try to live green as much as possible ” but Wolfe said he isn’t going to stop heating his driveway.
“When I built this place, I was oblivious to energy conservation, but I knew that (the house) should have a light footprint,” said Wolfe, who built his home into the hillside using natural-looking materials with little landscaping. He also redesigned and modified his driveway snowmelt system to use less energy.
“There needs to be dense development, and we need to control endless sprawl, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any buildings on big lots for successful, real people,” he said.
It’s a toss-up who’s more of a drain on resources ” full-timers Wolfe and Greenhut or part-timers like Mintz and Hawkins. On one hand, full-timers are using local water and power year-round, while Mintz’s utility bills are lower while she’s away. But second-home owners “double their global footprint”, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
“People will have a home in Denver ” they’re contributing to the growth of Denver ” and then they have a home in Vail, and they’re also contributing to the growth in this area, so they’re doubling their personal impact in general,” Hampton said.
After all, when they’re away, fridges are still running and heat is still on, even if kept at a minimum.
Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of environmental group Colorado Wild, said one benefit of second-home owners is they usually don’t have pets, which are notorious for harassing wildlife.
“Cats especially can be very detrimental to songbird populations,” Demmy Bidwell said. “As silly and cartoonish as that sounds, it can be a significant impact.”
Despite the negative impacts of living near the wild, the benefits of wide-open spaces are also apparent.
Hawkins stepped lightly onto her deck and leaned over the railing scanning the rocks below. She often sees the foxes who live on her property, and they are a delight.
As the co-owner and lead guide of Trailwise Guides, a Vail Valley guide service, Tom Wiesen makes a living of bringing people into the wild. It’s to be expected once people fall in love, they might want to live close to the woods, he said.
“All in all, I’d have to say the benefits far outweigh the detriments,” Wiesen said.
Simply stated ” open spaces are good for you, said Keith Montag, the community development director for Eagle County.
“It gives people a sense of openness, a sense of freedom and the ability to get away from the intensity of a development,” he said.
Ray Merry, the head of Eagle County’s environmental health department, said people feel more comfortable when they’re not in confined spaces. Crime rates are also lower in less populated places.
Research has even suggested walking on bare ground is better than walking on pavement, said educational psychologist and author Jane Healy of Vail.
“When I come home from a long time in New York City, it feels very different to be walking on real turf,” she said. “Those of us who live here sense these things.”
If he had to do it all over again, Wolfe said he’d make the same choice to live in Mountain Star.
“I wanted open space,” he said. “I think society diminishes nature, and my answer was to escape into it.”
Staff Writer Nicole Frey can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14621, or email@example.com.
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