Wildlife worries take center stage in second hearing for Booth Heights development
Former Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager for the area says mitigation efforts won't save bighorn herd
VAIL — It’s going to take at least two more meetings before the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission makes a decision on the proposed Booth Heights development in East Vail.
On Monday the commission spent about six hours listening to lengthy presentations about parking, traffic and — most important to many residents — environmental and wildlife reports about the proposed project.
Booth Heights is just north of the East Vail Interstate 70 interchange. The 23.3-acre parcel, owned by Vail Resorts, was rezoned in 2017 into two parcels. The larger of the two — 17.9 acres — is zoned “natural area preservation,” one of the town’s most restrictive districts. The smaller parcel — 5.4 acres — is in the town’s “housing” zone district, which was created to spur development of workforce housing.
Triumph Development of Vail has a contract to purchase the property. That company has proposed a combination of 42 rental units, 19 deed-restricted for-sale townhomes, and 12 free-market townhomes.
The commission on June 24 got its first formal look at the proposal. Monday’s look was more extensive. Responding to the commission’s previous questions about parking, Triumph has added 11 more spaces. That brings rental parking to 1.33 spaces per units.
Triumph Chief Operating Officer Michael O’Connor said that ratio is in line with the Lions Ridge apartments, and is more than the parking approved for the Solar Vail apartments just east of Red Sandstone Elementary School.
But by far the most time was spent on environmental and wildlife issues.
Differing opinions on the herd
Wildlife biologist Rick Thompson of Western Ecosystems, Inc., helped Triumph devise mitigation and design plans to ease the impacts on a herd of bighorn sheep. That herd’s critical winter range includes the Booth Heights parcel.
Thompson’s mitigation plan includes habitat improvements, including cutting back or burning overgrowth and cutting aspen trees to provide more open forage space for the animals.
The plan also includes site layout, from the location of parking to the lack of balconies on the north sides of buildings, in order to keep contact between residents and sheep to a minimum. The rules also forbid hiking or other use of the area surrounding the proposed housing.
The plan also includes a combination of education and enforcement to keep people away from wildlife. For renters, violating the rules could ultimately lead to being evicted, or, perhaps, losing their jobs with Vail Resorts.
For others, commission members wondered if all dogs should be banned from the property.
Project critic Rol Hamelin questioned the value of education, noting that visitors to Yellowstone National Park are greeted at the park’s entrance with educational materials, yet frequently violate the park’s rules.
Hamelin and others also questioned the validity of Thompson’s work. A trio of letters from independent wildlife biologists, as well as a letter from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, were Monday added to the public record.
Resident Larry Stewart called those letters a “game changer.”
“We really need to hear from these experts,” Stewart said.
Thompson acknowledged that one biologist, Gene Byrne, made several valid points, but questioned the criticism from the other two, wondering if they’d read his reports in their entirety.
Thompson maintained that the project’s effects on the sheep can be “avoided, minimized and offset.”
The real threat to the herd, he said “can be addressed through habitat improvement elsewhere on the winter range.”
‘Wildlife has never won a mitigation battle’
Bill Andree, the former Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager for the area that includes Vail, disagreed.
“Wildlife has never won a mitigation battle,” Andree said. “I’m sympathetic that it’s hard to live here as an employee … But when the human population starts dropping 40%, like the sheep … we’ve got a problem.”
While there were plenty of critics of the proposal, others asked the commission to try to find a balance between human needs and wildlife.
“There are points on both sides that are very important,” Vail Chamber & Business Association Director Alison Wadey said. “This project is crucial to our local workforce.
“There’s a way to find a middle ground, and I’m confident you all can figure it out.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 970-748-2930.