The stampede to save a gravel pit |

The stampede to save a gravel pit

Don Rogers

Watching Thursday night’s county commissioners meeting play out to the predictable decision to dip into the county’s general funds to overpay for open space in Edwards, I was impressed with the Vail Valley Foundation.The audience was stacked , the music and slides just right, the rhetoric tweaked from an intellectual debate over the best way to preserve open space in Edwards into a passion play as if this truly were an all open space or all development question – don’t let any facts get in the way of the stampede.Listening, I had the strong impression that much of the misty-eyed and full-throated crowd at the commissioners’ chambers was thinking of the flood plain and wetlands just to the west of the 72-acre Eaton parcel that the commissioners committed all that money to saving. Actually, they increased the chances that the developer with the option on that land to the west will try to fill in the flood plain. I don’t think Rick Hermes and George Sanders would really do that – as they’ve pointed out often, they are locals, too, with their headquarters right in the middle of Edwards, a rock throw from the quarry. Still, the irony lingers. I do remain concerned that dumping two years’ worth of open space funds into an area where the crucial land would be preserved without the county spending a dime will come back to haunt the commissioners. And that instead of a bold step forward, our leaders may inadvertently have taken a step backward with this investment in essentially buying the gravel pit. Yes, I’m aware they dipped into the general funds, which allow the open space fund to build up another $3 million or so this year. Count me among those frowning at that, too. But hey, I’ve been wrong before and will be again. I hope so. I just don’t see the wisdom in dumping taxpayer millions into something we already had where it matters. Homes and shops in the center of Edwards, next to, um, homes and shops? And open space still dominating the view? No wonder that even the open space advocates who actually study the issue are just about evenly split on the prudence of this deal.I do worry about opportunities that aren’t clear to the commissioners today coming up where preservation is more vital than the center of a commercial-residential area that’s been a gravel pit, for crying out loud, without exactly disturbing the tourists over the past decade or so. There’s a lot of more precious land than this to save from development, I believe, even if their availability isn’t obviously apparent today. What along Gypsum Creek, Brush Creek, the 10,000-acre ranch up around Castle Peak, Bond-McCoy, toward Camp Hale might make better use of this county commitment in the next couple of years? Back to the general fund when the open space fund again isn’t enough?And what of all the wonderful people who contribute that other $6 million to buy the Eaton parcel and then $2 million more for improvements? Would they be there to save, say, Castle Peak if that time came? Or tapped out?Yes, I know I’m raising hypotheticals, basing my worries on what might happen next rather than what’s in our hands now. But you know, that’s exactly how the Vail Valley Foundation sold this deal, too. What might the evil developers lurking on the far side of the gravel pit do? I think it’s a safe bet that they would have done the right thing, and that we’d have our open space and fund, too.I do suspect the commissioners let themselves get strong-armed. Deadlines, deadlines. Do it now or forget it. Having just spent the worst part of a week buying a truck, I saw something Thursday akin to taking the dealer’s first offer. Of course the foundation had a backup plan if they couldn’t get the commissioners to bite now. This is a very clever and experienced group. It’s almost an axiom, though, that where there’s pressure, you’d do best to “forget it.” Heck, I’d have spent $3,000 more than I did if we’d bitten on the car dealer’s very convincing “last” offer. And I’ll tell you, that’s more than comparable to what the commissioners spent out of all of our wallets. I did get my truck, incidentally, at the better price.But the commissioners – Edwards’ reliable sugar daddy – did bite, of course, without the local governments there having to make any commitments of their own, at least to this point. Why should they? Such a deal for them.So what now? The foundation still has a daunting task to raise the other $6 million to meet Bruce Eaton’s price of $12 million by September. I’m finding it another close call whether I will support it now that the county has made its decision.This is a close call, too. I appreciate the more intellectual conversations I’ve had with such folks as Harry Frampton, Mike Eaton (Bruce’s son) and thoughtful open space advocates, as well as letters to the editor that managed to say a bit more than “just do it” or “I support open space.” Congratulations; no doubt you believe education should be for the “children’s sake,” too. Don’t we all?Reasonable minds can disagree, and I can see the logic in preserving the gravel pit as open space and even spending general funds to do it without believing that’s the best way to go. It won’t be a horrible thing if the gravel pit becomes a park – only if that piece of turf prevents the preservation of truly precious open space outside our current developed areas. We’re making a bet here that this is the best way to handle those funds now. I can live with that.But in honesty I am put off by a campaign that pushes the intellectual debate off-track and into emotional waters. Why the flash and thunderclapping? This is a question for cool judgment, for exploring options as well as offering help. I don’t think the bandwagon was entirely appropriate this time. That’s just me, though. Don’t get me wrong, the foundation did a great, great job. But I’m not so sure that moving from a debate with compelling logic on each side to fulfledged political campaign will prove to be such a service to the people of Eagle County in the long run. Stampedes generally aren’t where the wisest decisions are made. So here I am watching on my little knoll, still thinking.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado

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