Just above Interstate 70, a narrow strip of sagebrush-covered hills are home to a Colorado treasure: the bighorn sheep that graze along this rugged, steep terrain. The land could also be used to help solve a chronic problem nearby: a shortage of affordable housing that threatens the future of the famous resort town of Vail.
Each winter, the hamlet becomes an international ski destination, offering pleasure, gastronomy, fashion and sport to thousands of visitors. But as in hundreds of communities across the United States, the influx of visitors and newcomers – from those coming for a few days to others buying second homes – has made it nearly impossible to find housing for workers needed to support tourism in the region.
“Someone explained to me that housing should be like infrastructure,” says Jenn Bruno, owner of a boutique in the heart of Vail. “We have to treat it like roads and bridges. And we have to make sure we have that, especially in a community like Vail, where we have an industry, and that’s tourism.
Just weeks before this month’s season opener at the ski resort, Bruno’s only employee was a teenage girl who could cover a few hours a week when her schedule permitted. The restaurant across from his shop has been there, closed, for about two years now.
For more than six years, the owner of the hill in question, the publicly traded company Vail Resorts Inc., has been trying to build apartments to furnish about 160 of its workers on a property called Booth Heights, named after a creek that meanders from a waterfall four miles up the rugged Gore mountain range. This housing would free up other apartments in town, which, in turn, would benefit a resort oasis awash with money and millionaires, but lacking adequate housing for chefs, bus drivers, lift operators mechanics and cashiers who keep the community humming. But environmental concerns and some longstanding skepticism of a global corporation running a multi-million dollar ski empire have created a saga filled with mistrust, legal filings and no solution. easily to a problem that everyone agrees will not go away.
The longstanding standoff at one of the country’s iconic ski resorts illustrates how difficult it is for a community to reach consensus on how to ensure people of all economic statuses can work and live together .
“We’re at an inflection point,” said Chris Romer, president of the Eagle County version of the chamber of commerce. “The housing challenge and how we meet it over the next 18 to 24 months will define what this community will look like in 20 to 30 years.
Vail Resorts has long wanted to build apartments on a five-acre corner of the 23-acre parcel at the low point of a bighorn sheep habitat that rises out of a rocky field just east of the I- 70.
Opponents of the construction, including Mayor Kim Langmaid, cite studies that show sheep naturally migrate to what would be the construction area in winter, when vegetation higher up is covered in snow. Last month, shortly after the first big snowfall of the season, five sheep were actually grazing near the future construction area.
“Some people say, ‘Well, they’ll just move out,'” Langmaid said. “But they can’t move anywhere else.”
The history of this plot of land is intertwined with the history of Vail. It was born from the vision of Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton, two outdoor enthusiasts who envisioned a ski area on rugged terrain not far from an army alpine training center called Camp Hale. They secured $1 million in funding by enticing initial investors to pay $10,000 for a condo and a lifetime ski pass.
As Colorado grew and the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 connected the state front to its western slope, Vail grew, not so much as a permanent residence – the full-time population is only about 5,600 – but as a resort destination. Tourists love the varied terrain on the 5,300 acres of skiable mountainside, making it one of the largest ski areas in the world. About 1.5 million people visit each year. This includes wealthy holidaymakers, some of whom have bought second homes.
Rising real estate prices and the Internet-driven vacation rental market have consistently driven regular workers out of the city center. In nearby Eagle County, the median price of a single-family home hit $1.2 million last summer.
Proponents of the project say three acres of sheep habitat is a price to pay, especially since the city’s largest employer is willing to foot the bill and find solutions for the sheep.
“We need to mitigate these lands and make sure we’re helping the flock of sheep,” Bruno said. “But I also don’t understand why people aren’t upset that in a community as wealthy as ours, with so much to offer, that we have kids who sleep in their cars and then always help us out by getting up. every day and serving us.”
Robyn Smith is one of the lucky few middle class people who have found what is considered affordable housing in Vail. Smith, who runs a private consulting business, and her husband, a snowcat operator on the mountain, entered a lottery for locals last year and were chosen from 22 other applicants to buy a 1,200-foot home square in a 30-unit subdivision for $525,000. When another unit became available two months ago, 49 people entered the single-family house lottery.
Before the lottery, Smith and her husband rented an apartment with a broken refrigerator for $3,200 a month and began to seriously consider giving up life in the mountains.
“I was like, ‘I can do this for a few more years at $3,200, but we’re never going to have a dog, or a kid, or, you know, ever retire,” Smith said.
The City of Vail is building other small pockets of housing around the city. He also has a program, funded by a 0.5% sales tax increase last year, to buy properties and put them into a limited stock of affordable housing.
For most workers, however, the rental market is the only choice. Last year, the “fair rent” for a studio in Eagle County — defined as the 40th percentile of typical rentals in the area — was $1,132 per month. To find this, many are forced to drive 10 miles west to Edwards or Avon or, if not affordable, about 40 miles south on a winding mountain road to Leadville.
Another option is Minturn, about five miles west of Vail, where Karole Denning rents a 103-square-foot room in a dormitory-like building attached to a Mexican restaurant. The rent recently went from $750 to $900 per month. He commutes 10 minutes west for a job, to a radio station, out of a restaurant basement, and 20 minutes east (when the roads are clear) for another job, in as a leader.
“But now Minturn is coming after us too,” Denning said. “They keep selling these spaces to get these multi-million dollar homes built, which doesn’t help any of us.”
The 160 beds Vail Resort wants to add, at a proposed cost of $17 million, sit on a parcel that has long been considered off-limits to development. But about eight years ago, as the housing crisis exploded, a member of the city council asked for a study of plots that could be developed. Surveyors dug through records and discovered that Vail Resorts owned the land.
“They went to pay back taxes for two years and then announced they were going to build housing on them,” Langmaid said.
And, in fact, the city council gave the green light to the project. For a time, the council even helped the station defend the building in court against groups concerned about the impact the building would have on the sheep.
The project was almost ready to go, but the turnover of the city council, driven by elections focused on the housing shortage, brought the project to a standstill. Instead of working with Vail Resorts, the city council has changed and is now trying to condemn the property. He recently offered $12 million for the land.
Vail Resorts rejected the offer with a terse letter from Executive Vice President Bill Rock, who recalled that the project had initially “enjoyed broad support from the City of Vail and was received with considerable enthusiasm by staff at the city and its council”.
“It was never about the money in this project,” said Beth Howard, COO of Vail Mountain. “It’s always been about creating additional, affordable housing for employees.”
One of the board members is Pete Seibert Jr., the son of the ski resort’s co-founder. Seibert initially supported the project, but changed his mind and voted to condemn it, based, he said, on an analysis by a scientist who said the size of the habitat was appropriate for the number of sheep that live there.
“I think we’ll look back, 40 or 50 years later, and be glad we decided not to build there,” said Seibert, who also thinks the big business nature of Vail Resorts prevents him from truly keeping the best interests of the community at heart.
The company, which is based in suburban Denver and now has 37 resorts in 15 states and three countries, insists the development would be no more disruptive to wildlife than the 430-student school and the dozens of multimillion-dollar homes located a short walk from the construction site, all of which were built years ago on part of the sheep reserve.
The station says no development in East Vail has undergone such thorough environmental scrutiny as the Booth Heights project. He says high-density housing a short walk from a bus stop that provides a short commute into town is precisely what the city needs.
In an attempt to frustrate the project, the city has offered Vail Resorts access to a 140-bed apartment building even closer to downtown that is under construction and will be ready for occupancy next winter. The station did not accept this offer, saying the city should try to work with the station to add as much affordable housing as possible.
“It’s a great addition. It’s not a solution, but it’s an addition,” Seibert said, as he roamed the construction site wearing a hard hat.
A few miles away, another possible addition, in Booth Heights, remains as it has for decades – untouched and peaceful except for the constant stream of 18-wheelers zipping down the freeway below.