Wheeling and dealing in Eaton Ranch effort | VailDaily.com

Wheeling and dealing in Eaton Ranch effort

Tamara Miller

EAGLE COUNTY Peter Runyon says he just wants whats best for Eagle County citizens.Arn Menconi says he does, too.So when both commissioners were approached recently about a possible new deal in the Eaton Ranch fundraising effort, they considered it.And then both commissioners turned it down. I felt that we wouldnt be gaining anything that we didnt already have, Menconi said. Ever since Vail Valley Foundation officials announced they had a $12 million purchase contract on the 72-acre parcel in west Edwards, developer Rick Hermes has tried to negotiate a compromise. The Foundation wants to purchase the land and preserve it as open space. Hermes, who has a purchase contract on property adjacent to Eaton Ranch, has plans for a small commercial center there. Recently, Hermes came up with an idea that piqued the Foundations interest. He offered to give up 80 acres of wetlands and floodplain in his contract in exchange for four acres of Eaton Ranch land that sits next to some restaurants and retail shops in Edwards. He also wanted to throw in $400,000 to seal the deal. Foundation Board President Harry Frampton took the deal to all the major donors. The biggest Eagle County, with $6 million committed was asked to weigh in, too. But just as negotiations between Hermes and the Foundation have gone on behind closed doors, so did the conversation Frampton had with the commissioners. Menconi and Runyon were asked privately and separately to voice their opinion. And privately and separately, they turned the deal down. Commissioner Tom Stone said he wasnt asked at all. I would be interested in hearing about this in a public meeting before the Board of County Commissioners, Stone said.

Eagle Countys decision to contribute so much to the Eaton Ranch effort has been controversial. The county plans to use all of its open space tax collections for the year, plus the balance of last years, to help pay for the purchase. That totals only about $3.8 million. The county also is throwing in $2.2 million worth of general fund dollars which are used to pay for day-to-day expenses and staff salaries to meet the $6 million request. Hermes offer would help the Foundation meet its goals, but it wouldnt reduce the countys pledge, Runyon said. Hermes offer also had some strings attached, Menconi said. He wanted assurance that the commissioners would approve his plans for a commercial center once submitted. Making a promise like that would be against the law, Menconi said. That would be pre-judging a file, and I cant do that, he said. But the main problem with Hermes offer is that the developer wouldnt be giving up much, Runyon said. The 80 acres he wanted to exchange are wetlands or floodplain, types of land builders are rarely permitted to develop, he said. The other major donors agreed, Frampton said. Multiple attempts to reach Hermes for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.When Hermes publicly offered last September to switch some of his property for the Foundations land and throw in some money to boot, the nonprofit promptly turned him down. It didn’t take very much time for us to realize it really went against what we are trying to do with the Eaton Ranch property, which is to preserve open space, Executive Director Ceil Folz had said. Runyon, for one, isnt entirely against building on part of Eaton Ranch property. When approving the countys $6 million contribution, he said hed be interested in reserving a portion of the property for something like a performing arts center. Runyon said hes still interested in that idea.

The best plan to date is the original plan, Menconi said. Runyon still would like the Foundation and Hermes to negotiate. Id love for everything to move forward and love for us to get more land, and have less money in, and have all of Rick Hermes property to put to deed-restricted affordable housing, Runyon said. But thats unlikely, he added.Menconi doesnt regret having the conversations privately, noting that he has not discussed his opinions on the deal with Runyon or Stone. Under Colorado law, any time a majority of county commissioners meet and discuss county business, it must be announced to the public. It doesnt appear that the commissioners have broken that law, said Tom Kelley, an attorney for the Colorado Press Association. But any discussion about a new deal in the Eaton Ranch fundraising campaign should be held publicly, Stone said. Menconi doesnt agree.Is every idea that is floated before an elected official brought before them in a public meeting? Menconi said. When asked if he thought it was wrong to have commissioners individually polled on a new Eaton Ranch deal, Menconi responded, No, I dont.Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or tmiller@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado

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