Vail Nature Center building has serious problems, won’t be used this year
What: The old building at the Vail Nature Center.
Where: Ford Park, Vail.
What did they find? Radon gas and mold.
Who runs the nature center? The property is operated and managed by Walking Mountains Science Center but owned by the town of Vail. The Vail Recreation District contracts with Walking Mountains for operations.
VAIL — The old house that has served for years as the Vail Nature Center has some big problems. Those problems may not be solved this year.
The Vail Town Council in March heard a report that first detailed some of those problems at the 1940s-vintage building. Those problems were found during a 2017 study about current and future uses of the nature center.
At the time, Vail Capital Projects Manager Todd Oppenheimer said he believed the building could be repaired by the time the nature center opens in late May. After further study, that’s no longer true.
In March, the bulk of the problems were structural. The building needs a new roof and structural renovations to the walls. The building also has a rodent problem.
A deeper look at the building has revealed more, and more severe, trouble.
At the Vail Town Council’s Tuesday, April 3, afternoon meeting, Oppenheimer gave council members some troubling preliminary results from a fresh environmental survey.
Radon and more
There’s naturally occurring radon gas in the dirt under the building. Oppenheimer said levels of the gas in the structure are more than 50 percent higher than what is considered a safe level.
In addition, there are high levels of two varieties of mold spores, penicillium and acrimonium.
All of those things can be repaired or mitigated. But, Oppenheimer said, acrimonium mold forms on rotting wood.
“That means mold may not be your biggest problem,” Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer told council members that it’s still too early to determine whether or not there are additional problems, or how much repairs might cost.
It’s also unclear what, if any, liability the town might have for possible health problems caused in the past by mold, radon and bacteria.
Asked about potential liability, Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire wrote in an email that the question, if it comes up, will at first be covered by attorney-client privilege between him and the council.
Also in an email, town public information officer Suzanne Silverthorn wrote that, “Public safety is our No. 1 priority and, as such, we’re committed to ensuring that any environmental issues we’ve become aware of will be fully addressed.”
If repairs can be made, then Oppenheimer said the work would certainly stretch into the summer months. As an alternative, Oppenheimer recommended the town not use the building this summer. Instead, a yurt and support deck could serve as a temporary structure. That project — using a yurt from a company in Montrose — will cost about $100,000 for both the structure and the deck.
Oppenheimer said a yurt with a 27-foot diameter can be built nearly to town requirements for roof snow loads.
Really, it’s temporary
While serious questions remain about the future of the old building, council member Kim Langmaid, who founded Walking Mountains Science School, said the town should “proceed in the most mindful way we can” when determining the building’s fate.
Council member Travis Coggin asked about the future of the building, too, and also wondered about using a temporary structure.
“There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary solution,” Coggin said.
The fate of the old building may also be tied to ideas for improving the experience at the nature center.
The March presentation included ideas from the Hopkins Architecture Team about the nature center’s future. Those ideas included making the center more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, improving educational programs and improving access to the center for emergency services agencies.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Dave Chapin said improving the original building without improving emergency access worries him. Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak told council members that if a fire started in the old building, then firefighters would essentially be protecting the surrounding forest by the time they could run hoses to the site from the nearest hydrant.
The broader future is one thing. The coming summer is another. For the coming season, it looks like operations will be run from a yurt. But, council members stressed, the yurt is a temporary answer to a longer-term problem.
For now, town crews are still working to determine just how big the problems are at the old building and whether it can be preserved.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 and firstname.lastname@example.org.