Vail’s biggest controversy? How Booth Heights stacks up to previous civic debates
Longtime locals say there have been equally contentious issues under previous town councils
VAIL — The proposed Booth Heights housing project is occupying much of Vail’s civic conversation. Some in town are calling it Vail’s biggest controversy.
That may not be true.
Talking with a number of longtime residents, there have been a number of passionate civic arguments over the years. As you’d expect, most involve ideas for building in the land-scarce Gore Creek Valley.
Rod Slifer moved to Vail before it was a town. He’s served on the Vail Town Council in different decades, including a couple of stints as Mayor.
“If you go back and look at most major developments, there was some opposition,” Slifer said.
Soothing those controversies in the early days sometimes required a personal touch.
“Either I or the town manager or other council people would go talk to people — we tried to go one to one.”
Rob LeVine has been involved with Vail’s civic life since the 1970s. He recalled that the biggest controversy might have been the fight over the Solaris development.
A special election
That project, which went through the town’s approval process in about 2005, was ultimately approved by the Vail Town Council. But the town had to create a “special development district” for what owner Peter Knobel proposed. That special designation meant opponents could challenge the council’s decision. Opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force a 2006 special election. Voters upheld the council’s decision, 1,110 to 467.
Current council member Kevin Foley, a 40-year resident, recalled that Solaris was the biggest town controversy before Booth Heights.
But LeVine remembered other significant civic debates. There were three attempts to build a conference center for the town. The final attempt collapsed in the mid-2000s, when cost estimates for the center outstripped projected revenue from a lodging tax voters passed specifically for the project. That tax was later repealed.
Mark Gordon was on the council during the Solaris special election. Gordon recalled some noisy debates in the 1990s over Vail’s decision to install roundabouts at the West Vail and Vail Town Center Interstate 70 interchanges.
Gordon recalled a good bit of opposition when the Middle Creek apartments were proposed and built in the early 2000s.
“There was a group of citizens … claiming that by building Middle Creek, it would ruin the town,” Gordon said. “People were saying (guests) wouldn’t come because of it.”
A mayor resigned
One proposal in the late 1990s caused then-Mayor Rob Ford to resign. That proposal called for building housing on the middle bench of Donovan Park, property that had been purchased with money from the town’s open space fund.
An Associated Press story at the time noted that Ford said he was being confronted all day by opponents of the idea.
LeVine said that a proposed cemetery on the site also drew plenty of public opposition.
Gordon said in his experience, those who complain the loudest are often a minority of residents.
Gordon noted the Solaris victory, and mentioned recent town survey questions about the number of events in town. In those surveys, about 80 percent say the number of events is just about right.
In many cases, Gordon said, “The people who show up to meetings are not indicative of the whole community.”
But Vail may have avoided what could have been its biggest controversy.
LeVine was on the council in the early 1990s and recalled there was serious behind-the-scenes discussion about the prospect of the town purchasing the ski resort.
Former Vail Associates owner George Gillett was in the midst of a bankruptcy filing. LeVine said Gillett’s holdings had just been appraised, with Vail Associates coming in at about $300 million.
“The biggest fear on council was (if) the town could withstand the controversy,” LeVine recalled. The town never acted on the idea, given the large amount of debt it would incur, and the almost-certain prospect of a legal challenge from Apollo Partners, which eventually bought Vail Associates’ assets and became Vail Resorts.
“We spent a lot of time on it, but it didn’t come through,” LeVine said.
We all know Eagle County is short on workforce housing. But a recent report shows there are still barriers to building.