Major valley land trade may be back on track
Two weeks after failing to receive approval of 300 units of affordable housing in west Avon, Vail Resorts officially declared a land exchange proposal dead after almost three years of negotiations.
That exchange involved the privately-owned, 509-acre Vassar Meadows south of Eagle, which Vail Resorts would have purchased for $4.3 million. The resort company would then have swapped that property for 480 acres of U.S. Forest Service land between Singletree and Avon, which it would then have given to the Eagle Valley Land Trust to be protected from development. The resort company would have kept a 40-acre parcel for the employee housing.
The resort company now has its eyes set on another land exchange that will be one of the keys to redeveloping Vail Village and the base of Vail Mountain.
Company chairman Adam Aron is now hinting broadly that portions of the failed Avon/Vassar Meadows land exchange could be considered as a means of making the Vail Mountain exchange happen. Vassar Meadows contains wetlands and uplands that Forest Service is keen on protecting because they provide habitat for myriad creatures.
The resort company needs three acres of Forest Service land at the base of Vail Mountain and is willing to give away nearly 300 acres it owns on South Game Creek and south of Arrowhead at Mud Springs.
The three acres at the base of the mountain will provide land for a real estate development that’s part of the $75 million “Front Door Project,” which will include a new ski building at the Vista Bahn Express lift. It’s a key part of the $1 billion redevelopment of Vail Village and Lionshead that’s expected to begin in earnest in 2006.
“We’re eager to move forward with the Front Door,” said Adam Aron, chief executive of Vail Resorts. “We’ve expressed our willingness to be creative and flexible and to consider alternative choices to make the Front Door happen.
“If Vassar and west Avon are of higher priority,” he added, “we indicated to the Forest Service that it’s an open book.”
The failure of the west Avon/Vassar Meadows land exchange ruffled the feathers of the Forest Service, which threatened to sue Vail Resorts over its foot-dragging on the proposal.
The resort company wanted to develop additional employee housing on the west Avon site, but before the swap could be consummated, a sharp national recession forced the resort company to trim its staff, negating the need for additional employee housing. Last year Vail Resorts reported it lost $14.5 million on revenue of $710 million.
The Forest Service made protecting Vassar Meadows its top priority, and officials there stated that exchange would have to occur before the Vail Mountain swap could. The exchange agreement could only be broken if the ski company was unable to secure the zoning it requested for the parcel.
Aron indicated in a letter to the Forest Service last week that the resort company was interested in working with the nonprofit land exchange organizations that have been stuck paying loans taken to keep Vassar Meadows from being purchased by developers.
“We are sensitive to the fact that several nonprofits have stuck their necks out on the land exchange,” Aron said. “We invited them to commence discussion with us to see if there are ways to make their position better than the status quo today.”
In 2000 Vail Resorts made a $1.8 million non-interest loan to the Boulder-based Conservation Fund on a short-term basis so it could purchase Vassar Meadows. As the swap waned, the fund was forced to carry the expense of borrowing money to hold the land at a cost of $10,000 a month.
Vail Resorts has hired Western Land Group of Summit County to shepherd its exchange proposal through the process, which can take 12 to 18 months. Public lands can be exchange for private lands of equal value.
“The biggest hurdle that remains (for the Front Door) is the land exchange,” said Aron.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.