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Open talk about open space

Don RogersDaily Managing Editor

Peter Bergh of Edwards has a good idea for Eaton Ranch and the prettier land to the west of it as a Central Park. His letter on the subject runs below.It doesn’t appear to be far off Peter Runyon’s view for what would be ideal, given the commissioner’s musings about building something with public value on the land.Basically, Bergh and even Runyon recognize that making the gravel pit all open space is hardly the best use of the property. So put some public amenities on it. An amphitheater, recreational facilities, park, maybe even a lake. Bergh takes the concept a step further and lines up with Rick Hermes, who holds the option on the larger B&B land just west of Eaton. In short, if we understand this correctly, Hermes has offered to trade 80 of the 105-acre property in exchange for four acres of the gravel pit most suited for development. He would also pay $400,000 to help finish the drive to buy the Eaton property.The Vail Valley Foundation and two of the three county commissioners individually have thrown cold water on the idea, reasoning that those 80 acres of flood plain and wetlands are unlikely to be developed, so there’s no need for the agreement. Besides, chances are nearly certain that they’ll raise all the money they need to buy Eaton as open space.If Hermes completed the purchase of the B&B property and fenced off the line with Eaton, I think people would quickly see the merits of the exchange. You see, the pretty land Edwards folks seem to think the foundation is getting for them is on the wrong side of the boundary line. They’ll have a grassed-over gravel pit and a quarter of a mile of river frontage with just Eaton, perhaps with a nice walking path that ends abruptly at the boundary. Those next scenic 80 acres beside the river do have some real value, viewed this way. For $12 million, the county and foundation are getting what’s now the pit itself. That’s about it.So Hermes’ offer actually is better than you might at first think. Considering this, you’d figure the commissioners and foundation would be more interested. But there is a larger checkers match playing out. I think the foundation and commissioners are banking on getting Eaton and then winding up with the B&B parcel, too. This land might be less expensive if it can’t be paired with the Eaton Ranch parcel for development. The bulk of the B&B piece is not easily developable, since at least 80 acres of that 105-acre piece lie in flood plain and even wetlands. And a sizable part of the buildable land lies between the Eagle River and I-70, with no easy access to it.Without the Eaton piece, building on the B&B land is less feasible. So maybe Hermes doesn’t complete the purchase, as happened with the Eaton piece he had an option on, and it goes on the market again. Maybe we have yet another round of fundraising and the commissioners emptying next year’s open space funds on this land. And voila. The whole chunk is open space.This would make the Edwards pit project more palatable from an open space point of view, but would cost the public an additional $3 million or so on top of what’s been squandered already. I look at “Ginnturn” – those truly gorgeous 5,400 acres between Minturn and Red Cliff with real wildlife migration corridor value. Bobby Ginn bought that whole for $32.5 million. How far would $6 million or $9 million go if the commissioners could have kept the money in the bank and won approval from the voters to leverage that money in a loan to help protect those 5,400 acres? There’s a lot of private land in Eagle County that this money would go to better use preserving, even if not immediately apparent to our commissioners. The path the commissioners chose will make a sensible idea to bond against the open space fund a tough, tough sell with the public at this point. I mean, would you trust these guys with bonding power to make wise decisions on open space at this point? Yes, I know, their Edwards constituents love what they’ve done with the gravel pit. They should, considering Edwards is paying next to nothing for it. But the rest of the county will suffer for this in the long run. And Edwards residents will be sadly amazed that stopping sensible development at the gravel pit does next to nothing about their traffic issues to come.The Daily’s publisher, Steve Pope, along with Bergh and some others, see merit in Hermes’ offer. I could live with it easier than the checkers victory sought by Menconi, Runyon and the foundation. But it still leaves precious public funds wasted, and I’m not sure whether dedicated open space money could legally be used on land with public amenities such as amphitheaters, ball fields, or lakes.The best outcome for open space in the long run is for the Eaton Ranch purchase with public money to fall short, saving the commissioners from their own hasty commitment in January. But that’s not likely at this point. The foundation is a mere $300,000 away, their representatives say. Out of public view – Commissioner Tom Stone wasn’t even aware of the back-room discussions – Menconi and Runyon each rejected Hermes’ offer. That may set up an interesting face-off over the B&B parcel. Hermes could well make the most of developing that land and fencing off the pretty stuff. At least half the county wouldn’t blame him a bit, although that would be the worst consequence of all. Especially if he fills in some of that flood plain, like Dotsero – or Brett Ranch just downstream of the B&B property.Bergh’s Central Park idea makes sense, considering where we are today. It would be nice for Commissioners Menconi and Runyon to at least bring a discussion about that into the open, however short they’d like to make it. Technically, they may have skirted open meeting law while thoroughly abusing the spirit that informs the law. But making secret decisions is even worse for the public in the long run than squandering precious funds on the wrong projects. Let’s hope this isn’t a pattern with these two. Decisions about open space should be, well, open.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com. This column, like all personal columns, does not necessarily reflect the views of the Vail Daily.Vail, Colorado


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