Wilderness wrangling, shopping showdown in Vail Valley | VailDaily.com

Wilderness wrangling, shopping showdown in Vail Valley

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailySeptember: Tree Line Premier Dispensary bud tender David Bird puts "Dutch Dragon" marijuana back into a jar after displaying it on his scale at the Eagle-Vail dispensary. Dispensary owner Bryan Swanton said "Dutch Dragon" is used as a pain reliever.

VAIL, Colorado – There was plenty of controversy in the Vail Valley in 2009, between the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign, the proposal for a Target-anchored shopping center in Eagle, and the elimination of late-night buses.

Here’s the last of our four-part look at the top stories of the year:

Backers of the “Hidden Gems” wilderness proposal want to create roughly 400,000 acres of federally protected wilderness in the Vail Valley and surrounding counties. Supporters argue these lands are critical to the survival of Colorado’s wildlife and natural beauty and should therefore be off limits to logging and mining.

But that effort faces aggressive opposition from snowmobilers, mountain bikers, an Army high-altitude training center based at the Eagle County airport and other groups who could be shut out if the lands receive the highest level of protection.

“Hidden Gems” supporters have been meeting with various groups and have scaled back their plan to allow some groups to continue using certain lands should the wilderness ever be created. But the proposal, which requires the approval of Congress, still needs one of Colorado’s senators or representatives to sponsor it.

A proposed shopping complex fanned controversy in Eagle. Eagle Town Trustees made history in November when they decided to let Eagle voters have the final say on the future of Eagle River Station. The plans include 550,000 square feet of commercial space with a Target, 581 condos and a hotel on the east side of town.

Town trustees approved the proposal from Trinity RED Eagle Development in a split vote but attached a string to their approval: the project must pass a citizens’ referendum.

That decision kicked off a heated campaign. Meeting in living rooms and knocking on doors, campaigners on both sides of the Eagle River Station debate appealed to their neighbors. The developer funded the Yes for Eagle’s Future campaign. Opponents hired a Front Range political strategist and coalesced into a group with the slogan “Smart Growth – Not Urban Sprawl – Vote No on Eagle River Station.”

With the year about to end, the fate of Eagle River Station remains unresolved. The one thing on which most people agree is that the Jan. 5 vote will be pivotal for the town.

For several years, Vail had been working with a Texas developer who sought to redevelop the town-owned Lionshead parking structure into luxury hotels, shops and condominiums.

In November, Vail voted against giving an exclusive development option to Mark Masinter for the structure.

“I have too much invested (into the project),” said Masinter, who also promised to a bring a minor leage hocky team to the area. “I’ll be back.”

The Vail Town Council approved a plan for the project in 2008. But Vail Resorts has not lifted a “deed restriction” that it holds on the property. Masinter and the town wrangled over how Masinter could hold on to exclusive rights to developing the property.

The town is now considering building a transit center within the Lionshead parking structure.

The Vail Town Council is now made of up mostly women.

Kerry Donovan, Susie Tjossem and incumbent Kim Newbury were elected to the council, along with incumbent Kevin Foley.

The campaign was marked by debate over how Vail should face the tough economy – as well as the standard issues of housing, parking and the relationship with Vail Resorts.

Donovan is a Vail native whose parents, John and Diana, were among Vail’s pioneers and have also served as council members.

Notable candidates who finished out of the running included former Mayor Ludwig Kurz, Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier and incumbent Mark Gordon, who was the top vote-getter in 2005.

Medical marijuana dispensaries cropped up all over the valley this year.

As of October, there were at least five in the county.

The state’s medical marijuana program was approved by voters in 2000. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues cards to those who are legally allowed to use the drug, per doctor’s orders, for medical conditions that the state defines.

Several governments quickly restricted or banned pot shops within their boundaries, though.

Eagle County said dispensaries weren’t allowed within 200 feet of homes or parks, and within 500 feet of schools and day-care centers. Gypsum officials said they wouldn’t give a business license to a pot dispensary. Vail voted to essentially ban dispensaries temporarily.

Facing a funding shortfall, ECO Transit raised fares and cut routes this summer.

That had some valley bus riders up in arms. Many also were upset that the system eliminated its 2 a.m. bus. The last bus now leaves Vail at midnight.

Governments around the valley tightened spending in response to revenues that have already declined or are expected to decline.

Eagle County’s budget dropped by 42 percent and included the elimination of 32 jobs through a combination of layoffs and early-retirement packages.

Vail’s general fund operating budget for 2010 is five percent less than the operating budget in 2008. The new proposal reduced salary expense to reflect four vacant positions that will not be filled. Additional reductions were taken to various line items, including the employee home ownership program to balance the operating budget on an annual basis. The reductions were in addition to $2.9 million eliminated from the general fund operating budget in 2009.

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 970-748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.

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