Tree-cutting inflames neighbors
Last month’s decision by the Vail Town Council to deny a pair of citizen appeals of a proposed redevelopment project on West Meadow Drive could set an undesirable precedent for Vail, says long-time resident Merv Lapin.Lapin filed one of the appeals, asking the council to overturn the Design Review Board approval of the proposed Halaby residence, a duplex at 252 West Meadow Drive. At issue is the removal of trees on the property more specifically, about 10 stately spruce trees estimated to be about 100 years old and more than 80 feet tall."The town’s code says if there’s another way, you should use it," Lapin says, arguing that the removal of the trees goes against the grain of long-standing town guidelines. Lapin lives in the same neighborhood, but says his property won’t be affected by the redevelopment. But other property owners may point to the town’s approval for this project in their own quest to develop as much density as possible, even it comes at the expense of the natural environment, Lapin says.Two council members voted against the development, but town officials say they worked long and hard with the applicant to develop a satisfactory design that complies with codes and gives the property owner his due rights.But that argument doesn’t sit well with council member Diana Donovan, who says town guidelines don’t imply a God-given right to develop right up to that limit."I believe the approval is in violation of the Town of Vail’s codes," says Donovan. "It’s a big game and it’s not in the best interest of Vail," she adds, suggesting there is a trend toward redeveloping existing properties with the maximum amount of allowable density.Donovan, a second-term council member who also served 14 years on the planning commission, was one of two council members who voted against the application. Donovan acknowledges that the project "probably meets the letter of the law but not the spirit and intent."The intent clearly is that 100-year-old trees get to stay," she says.Property owner Ted Halaby, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, says he thinks the months-long approval process involving seven meetings was fair."The problem is, when you have a wooded lot, you’re limited in what you can do," Halaby says, explaining that his architect worked closely with town staff to come up with satisfactory design. "We love the property and the location and we love Vail," Halaby says.The community development department recommended to uphold approval of the project in an April 15 memo to the council, stating that any "significant redevelopment" of the property would not be practical without removing some existing vegetation.According to the memo, development guidelines and regulations don’t “completely prohibit removal of existing vegetation.” And the proposed landscape plan "adequately compensates for the removal of some existing vegetation from the site." The town required more than 50 trees to be replanted on the lot, including five that must be at least 35 feet tall."I think it’s a solid outcome for the town and the neighborhood," says Mayor Ludwig Kurz. "I venture to guess when this is done, it will look like the old woods," he says."Past councils have not allowed this kind of thing," says Lapin, himself a former council member. Lapin says the new structure is designed for maximum square footage, coming at only a few feet under the limit for the size of the lot. In other cases notably the lots on either side of 252 West Meadow property owners have designed buildings with an eye toward maintaining existing natural features. According to Lapin,one of the adjacent lots feature an S-shaped building and the other a "pod-type" development, both designed to be in harmony with the existing landscape."In the past, people have had to work around trees," Lapin says. If the decision to allow this type of project sets a precedent, it could endanger other treescapes in Vail in areas like Rock Ledge and Beaver Dam roads, he adds. "All these 100-year-old trees are in jeopardy," Lapin says. "What will happen is, you’ll lose the old forest, the beauty of it. A lot of those values are not being retained. It’s sad. It’s sad for my kids," he says, explaining that a cool-down in the resort economy may be generating more pressure to approve development, even if it comes at the expense of the environment.According to Lapin, the decision is symptomatic of a new-school development mentality in Vail that favors quantity over quality an issue that Vail will face more frequently as the pace of redevelopment increases. "When you give up quality for quantity, the community suffers in the long-term. That’s what this project represents to me," Lapin says. And that is wrong-headed, because quality and economic value go together, he concludes."I can guarantee that this proposal would not have been approved through the early 1990s," says long-time planning commissioner Donovan. "No rules have changed as far as I know."If every lot in town to be redeveloped takes that approach, the picture of the town would change dramatically, Donovan warns."It’s understandable that some of the neighbors are upset. But we did the best for the long-term," says Mayor Kurz. "We had seven meetings with the design review board (including a site visit) to get this situated in a way to leave the trees," he says. According to Kurz, the project architect told town planners that he had done everything possible to preserve as many trees as he could. "Even if four or five more could have been saved, they probably wouldn’t live long," Kurz says, explaining that impacts from construction would likely damage some of the remaining trees.Vail’s landscape, including those trademark spruce and fir groves are subject to other pressures besides redevelopment, he explains. Aging forests and new fire regulations aimed at mitigating wildfire hazards will also play a role, he concludes.Both Donovan and Lapin fired what could be an early volley in the upcoming town council election. They say voters should keep these types of issues in mind when they start comparing candidates this coming fall."People need to find out what their elected officials represent and vote accordingly," Lapin says.
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