Vail Valley’s top stories of 2019: Battles over Booth Heights, Avon barn top local headlines |

Vail Valley’s top stories of 2019: Battles over Booth Heights, Avon barn top local headlines

Vail Resorts also made big moves, Minturn rejected a big water deal and a historic avalanche season created chaos

For a small community, we have a lot going on. 

From big business to small-town arguments over big-money disputes to everyday life, and death, 2019 was a busy year in the Vail Valley. Here is a look at some of the top stories of the year.

And yes, we’ve probably missed a few.

East Vail controversy

The saga of a workforce housing project in East Vail — and the possible fate of a herd of bighorn sheep — isn’t yet settled. Expect the arguments about it to continue.

The property in question — a 23.3-acre parcel just north of the Interstate 70 exit in East Vail — was rezoned in 2017 for both workforce housing and preservation.

A plan for a combination of deed-restricted and free-market housing on the steep site was approved in August on a 4-3 vote by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. The Vail Town Council in October, on another contentious 4-3 vote, denied an appeal of that decision.

The survival of a bighorn sheep herd in East Vail has been at the center of a charged debate over a workforce housing project in East Vail known as Booth Heights.
Debbie Eno | Special to the Daily

In November, a group of local residents brought a legal challenge to that decision, so the courts now have the issue.

Work could begin in the spring, or not. Stay tuned. 

Avon’s barn boondoggle

In February, Avon taxpayers rebuked a plan to move the 110-year-old Hahnewald barn to a new location in the town core for a cost of $1.6 million by nearly an 8-to-1 margin.

The Avon council had previously approved a plan to move the barn, but a community survey designed to mimic an election revealed a strong distaste among the public for the idea, which received 104 votes in favor and 891 against.

Avon officials count survey ballots in April. Avon taxpayers soundly rejected moving the 110-year-old Hahnewald Barn.
Chris Dillman | Vail Daily

The decision was the second council action to be reversed by the community in recent years. The Town Council made the results of the recent barn election official in April, taking action to discontinue financial efforts to save the 110-year-old structure, which was torn down in August.

Minturn, developer plan divorce

The Minturn Town Council in August rejected a deal that would have supplied water to a portion of the Battle Mountain property, the developer announced the company would seek to separate the lower portion of the property from Minturn. That property was annexed in the later years of the previous decade.

It’s going to take some time to finalize a divorce between the town of Minturn and the developers of the Battle Mountain property.
Special to the Daily

The de-annexation request is complicated and would put approval of a project that includes more than 700 homes into the hands of Eagle County. 

This is one to watch in the coming months. 

Berlaimont ballyhoo

Wildlife also plays a role in Berlaimont Estates, a controversial proposed development near Edwards.

The proposal calls for dividing a 680-acre property into 19 parcels of 35 acres or more. Parcels of that size exempt the property from county zoning review. But the developers are proposing a new road into the property, and that road has to cross property managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service has to approve that road. That agency hasn’t yet issued a decision on the road request.

There has been stiff opposition to the proposal, with residents claiming that the homes and new road would have an impact on wildlife movement and populations in the area.

Wildlife woes

The bighorn sheep herd in East Vail is struggling. Meanwhile, elk populations have also seen a steep decline. 

According to state wildlife managers, the number of elk counted between Vail Pass and Wolcott dropped by roughly two-thirds between 2002 and 2016.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has cut the number of hunting licenses issued in those hunting units, hoping to spur recovery of the herds. That hasn’t happened. 

The number of elk between Vail Pass and Wolcott has dropped by roughly two-thirds.
Daily file photo

Bill Andree was the area’s wildlife manager for nearly 40 years, and has recently retired. Now free to speak his mind, Andree believes that changes in public policy are about all that’s left to try to rebuild the herds.

In a phone interview following a March wildlife forum, Andree said, “If the public decides wildlife is a priority, elected officials will have to start making tough decisions and saying ‘no.’”

First half of March buried in avalanches

Between March 1 and 14, Colorado experienced the most dramatic avalanche cycles the state has seen in decades — one that avalanche experts are still trying to fully understand.

Courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The Colorado Avalanche Information center recorded nearly 1,000 avalanches during that time, though Brian Lazar, CAIC’s deputy director believes that up to five times more may have occurred.

Some avalanches buried our highways, and others made their ways inbounds at ski resorts across the state. Locally, a scare on the Minturn Mile left us relieved that no one was buried in an avalanche that occurred on the popular backcountry run.

Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow

It was a huge offseason for Vail Mountain. Vail Resorts not only completed the long-discussed expansion of Golden Peak, widening its boundaries by 68 acres in the resort’s first expansion since Blue Sky Basin, but it also pulled off the largest snowmaking project completed in a single season in North America.

The upgraded the snowmaking system on Vail Mountain is designed to cover more terrain, and more terrain at higher elevations. That’s going to help in the coming years if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with corporate plans. 

Vail Resorts’ new snowmaking system on Vail Mountain covers more terrain, more efficiently.
Daily file photo

This year, the mountain opened Nov. 15, on schedule. But instead of early mountain access from Lionshead, skiers started their season from Vail Village, riding Gondola One to Mid-Vail, then downloading back to Vail Village.

Vail Resorts touts the new system as more efficient, and more effective than the old system.

New leaders at local mountains

Beth Howard and Nadia Guerriero took different paths to their careers with Vail Resorts. Now they’re working together again.

In February, Howard was named the new vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain, moving over from the same position at Beaver Creek. Guerriero, the general manager at Northstar, was named to replace Howard at Beaver Creek. Both moves became effective in May.

The moves represented a homecoming of sorts for both women. Howard started her long Vail Resorts career at Vail, landing an internship in food and beverage before moving her way up to management.

For Guerriero, coming to Beaver Creek was a move back to her home state after 20 years away. She grew up in Boulder and graduated from the University of Colorado.

Vail Health makes $60M pledge

Confronted with the enormity of Eagle County’s behavioral health needs, local residents and agencies knew what they needed.

Months of discussion revealed they needed just about everything — programs, professionals, beds and resources. Most of all, they needed a champion — an entity that was willing to lead the charge both organizationally and financially to make meaningful inroads in the effort to improve behavioral health services for local residents.

In early April, Vail Health announced it would be that champion.

The local hospital and health care provider says it will commit $60 million in funding over the next 10 years to transform behavioral health services in the Eagle River Valley. In partnership with Eagle County and other community groups, a new nonprofit collaborative will be created to build needed facilities, improve access to providers and lower barriers to accessing behavioral health care across the valley.

Vail loses two icons

In the span of less than a month, Vail mourned the passing of two of its most celebrated figures. Pepi Gramshammer, who died in August at 87, was the first professional skier to call Vail home. He and his wife, Sheika, were among the town’s first hoteliers. Both said coming to Vail fulfilled their dreams of coming to the United States. 

Pepi Gramshammer is as synonymous with Vail as the resort’s famed Back Bowls.
Special to the Daily

Pepi and Sheika played hosts to President Gerald Ford and other notables, and both were renowned for the spirit and verve they brought as Vail turned from a fledgling ski area with gravel streets to the world-famous resort it is today.

Pepi’s passing was marked by both private and public celebrations — and parties, the way Pepi would have wanted it.

In early September, Sanford Morris “Sandy” Treat Jr., who lived every minute of his 96 years, died. He was a regular fixture in local veterans organizations and one of the original members of the famed 10th Mountain Division.

Sandy Treat, a member of the famed 10th Mountain Division, died at 96. He was a regular fixture at the Colorado Snowsports Museum with his Tales of the 10th.
Special to the Daily

Among his many contributions to the Vail community, Treat hosted the Colorado Snowsports Museum’s Tales of the 10th Mountain Division, a weekly series of talks by members of the famed division. The standing-room-only crowds almost always greeted Treat with a hero’s welcome.

High water claims man’s life

A rafting accident in early June claimed the life of Nikolay Pezhemskiy, 29. The Russian man and four friends started down the Eagle River at EagleVail on a sunny afternoon. The raft hit a tall wave and flipped, throwing all five men into the runoff-swollen river. Four made it to the safety of the riverbank. Pezhemskiy didn’t.

Nikolay Pezhemskiy was killed in a river accident in early June when his boat flipped near EagleVail.
Special to the Daily

While emergency crews were on the scene in Avon within moments, attempts to revive Pezhemskiy were unsuccessful.

Traffic stop shooting

An early December traffic stop in Avon turned deadly when officers shot a gun-wielding man.

A Colorado State Patrol officer pulled over a U-Haul truck that was eastbound on Interstate 70. The driver pulled off at the Avon exit and pulled into the Walgreens parking lot.

A Nevada man was shot and killed in Avon after reportedly refusing to drop his gun and pointing it at officers during a standoff.
Photo by Ross Leonhart

Witnesses and law enforcement officials say Alvern Donell Walker, 58, got out of the truck and was waving a pistol toward himself and others. Officers made several attempts to get Walker to put down the handgun. He was shot when he refused to put down the weapon and continued waving it around.

Walker was pronounced dead at Vail Health Hospital.

Banks hit in Edwards

On the first day of May, a woman walked into two Edwards banks and handed over a note demanding money. She walked out of the US Bank location after tellers were confused by the note and into the Wells Fargo where she made off with cash.

By June, the FBI had Karen Hyatt, her fiancé, Craig “Lucky” Dickson, and the couple’s sidekick Christopher Lutz in custody. The FBI, in an arrest affidavit, reported that Hyatt and Dickson announced their engagement on April 8, 2019, in a Facebook post. They were part of five bank robberies in the next 30 days: Denver, Boulder, Centennial and the two in Edwards.

On May 1, Karen Hyatt walked into two Edwards banks in a three-minute span and demanded money from both.
Special to the Daily

In November, Hyatt, Dickson and Lutz all pleaded guilty in federal court to the springtime bank robbery spree. Sentencing is scheduled for January. All three face up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

Edwards comes full circle

After months of road construction, Edwards finally got the first iteration of its roundabout at its main intersection in August. The one-lane roundabout eventually became two lanes during the fall, and construction went on hiatus in late November with the project largely complete.

When construction began at the roundabout in the spring, Edwards motorists braced for a long summer. Early on, lengthy traffic jams were reported at the site.

Cars circle the new roundabout in Edwards at the intersection of Highway 6 and Spur Road. Construction on the roundabout is mostly done.
Daily file photo

Project crews will return in March 2020 to launch construction of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge along the Spur Road.

“We have finalized our agreement with the Union Pacific Railroad so we can start to do that work,” said Matt Figgs, project manager from the Colorado Department of Transportation. “But next summer will be much less impactful than this year was. The roundabout construction was significantly impactful.”

Superintendent ousted

In late January, Eagle County Schools’ seven-member board unanimously decided that Dr. Carlos Ramirez would no longer be superintendent just eight months after being hired.

“Remain calm,” said Kate Cocchiarella, the board president. “We have a strategic plan for the district and for each of the schools.”

It took longer to find Ramirez — through a national search — than he spent leading the district, and many of those same members voted unanimously in March 2018 to hire him when he was an assistant superintendent in the Houston Independent School District.

Ramirez’s departure came at a cost to taxpayers — $195,000 in severance pay plus six months of health insurance.

The move drew considerable criticism, but the tempest eventually dissipated as the district moved forward with the promotion of assistant superintendent Phil Qualman in April. Qualman beat out two strong outside candidates for the job.

“I love this community. I’m committed to this district. I’ve given my professional heart to the organization and I want it to be as good as it can be,” Qualman said.

Prosecutor dismisses case against sheriff

James van Beek’s petty offense case was quietly dismissed earlier this month.

In his motion to dismiss the case, special prosecutor Ben Sollars said there was “no reasonable likelihood” of convicting the sheriff of Eagle County of the misdemeanor charge.

Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek enters court in September in Eagle, flanked by his attorney, David Kaplan, on the left. Van Beek’s legal trouble is behind him after his petty offense case was dismissed earlier this month.
Mort Mulliken | Special to the Daily

District Attorney Bruce Brown, a Democrat, presented the case that convinced a grand jury to hand down a petty offense indictment against van Beek, Eagle County’s only elected Republican.

At issue was a county fund containing money seized by the Sheriff’s Office. Brown convinced a grand jury that van Beek might be improperly spending money from that reserve fund and the grand jury indicted van Beek with a misdemeanor petty offense. Brown claims he should have been part of any spending decisions.

Van Beek called the indictment “unwarranted, a “personal attack,” and an attack on the “men and women of the Sheriff’s Office.”

“I am pleased with the result. It is unfortunate the taxpayers of both Eagle and Garfield counties had to fund a case that resulted in the dismissal of an ill-conceived petty offense charge,” van Beek said in a written statement. “I not only looked at this as an unwarranted attack on me personally, but an attack on the fine men and women who commit their energies to the Sheriff’s Office.”

Pam Boyd, John LaConte, Randy Wyrick, Sean Naylor and Nate Peterson also contributed reporting to this story.

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