Vail commissioner: No influence from Vail Resorts in voting for Booth Heights
VAIL — Indeed, if every Vail Resorts employee serving on a public board had a conflict of interest in matters that affect their employer, there would have been a lot of vacancies on the boards that govern the Gore Creek and Eagle River valleys over the years.
But the controversial Booth Heights development has brought up the question once again, as Vail Planning and Environmental Commission member John Ryan Lockman, who voted in favor of a development plan for the property on Monday, works as a salaried employee for the company. Vail Resorts owns the developable property but intends to sell it to Triumph Development and master lease a portion of the proposed 61 units to use for employee housing.
A letter that was received by the town before Monday’s meeting says there is a strong public impression that Lockman was influenced to vote in favor of the project. The letter has more than 100 signatures and includes the following statement:
“At the (Planning and Environmental Commission) meeting on August 12, several Vail Resorts management-level people appeared to urge approval of the project because Vail Resorts needs more employee housing. They included Beth Howard, a corporate officer of Vail Resorts (Vice President) and the COO of Vail Mountain. Since Mr. Ryan-Lockman works in management for Vail Resorts as the Environmental Sustainability Manager for Vail/Beaver Creek, it was his ultimate management superior who made the request for approval. We believe this placed Mr. Ryan-Lockman in a situation where if he did not support the project he had reason to fear retaliation from his employer.”
The letter prompted town attorney Matt Mire to ask Lockman if he was conflicted by the situation.
“Despite what’s stated in the letter, which we did receive and is now part of the record, are you able to remain impartial?” Mire asked Lockman.
Lockman affirmed, for the record, that he is able to remain impartial.
Only approval needed
Vail Resorts’ deal with Triumph hinges on the approval of the development plan by the Planning and Zoning Commission. While Monday’s decision is the only approval needed for development, the town council has the option of reviewing the decision. Following Monday’s meeting, council member Kim Langmaid said she thinks it’s likely the Town Council will review the matter.
In 2017, Langmaid voted against rezoning the parcel from duplex zoning to general housing zoning. Housing zoning requires approval of a development plan from the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission.
The property received the duplex zoning in the 1970s, when East Vail was annexed into the town. Jim Lamont worked as an assistant town manager and community development director during those years and said the duplex zoning was placed on the property with a maximum of eight duplexes in mind.
“They did not say it can’t be built, there was just too many obstacles, and questions,” Lamont said.
As a result, the town “put it in a use category that still allowed value to the land, development value,” Lamont said. “And that value — from the preliminary analyses that were done — that’s where the eight-duplex kind of idea evolved. That’s when everybody walked away saying there are just too many unknowns, and the wildlife issue, even at that point in time, was a point of contention.”
Eagle County Assessor Mark Chapin, however, said when the town of Vail annexed the property in the early 1970s and zoned it for duplex lots, the parcel was noted as being owned by the state.
It was actually owned by Vail Resorts at the time, a mistake that lasted until about 2016, when it was discovered that Vail Resorts owned the land during a rewriting of the town of Vail’s Open Lands Plan. Vail Resorts filed an affidavit of ownership for the land with Chapin’s office in June of 2017. The company then paid property taxes for 2015 and 2016, which was all they owed, even though they had not been paying property taxes on the parcel for decades. Retroactive taxes can only be levied for the previous period, Chapin said, so on a deed discovered in 2017, a property owner would only be liable for taxes levied in 2015 and subsequent years.
‘Bring trust back to the process’
With Vail Resorts now a tax-paying owner of the property, the company’s deal to sell the land to Triumph for development includes a provision for Vail Resorts to master lease a portion of whatever is built. It will be part of the company’s commitment of $30 million toward workforce housing projects in the communities in which it operates, a commitment which has been applauded by Lamont and others.
Lamont says he supports the proposed EverVail development, which was approved by the town in 2012 and contains a maximum of 450 dwelling units with provisions set aside for employee housing. He says he would even support something for Booth Heights that looks more like the eight duplexes originally imagined for the area.
But in rezoning the parcel for housing, which allowed for the higher density 61-unit proposal, Lamont says a development plan should have been presented first.
“You’ve got to have the development plan to substantiate the land use for (the housing zoning),” Lamont said.
All subsequent issues — from concerns about the bighorn sheep habitat on the parcel to Lockman’s employment with Vail Resorts — could have been avoided if the development plan was presented to the council at the time of rezoning, Lamont said.
“Until that occurs, no matter who’s involved in this issue, if they’re concerned about bringing trust back to the process … the issue is not over,” Lamont said. “Even if the council calls it up and makes a final decision, the issue is not over.”
For Lockman’s part, he said nobody at Vail Resorts has ever discussed the Booth Heights project with him.
“There’s absolutely no influence of any kind from my employer,” he said.