Log In

Reset Password

Vail Resorts rejects town’s $12 million offer for parcel to protect bighorn

The Town of Vail and wildlife officials erected fencing around bighorn habitat in East Vail along Interstate 70 in April 2020 after two sheep were struck by vehicles. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
A prolonged legal battle now looms as the only resolution

Vail Resorts isn’t budging. Neither is the Vail town council.

So it looks like a court will settle the disagreement between the resort operator and the home of its flagship resort over the best use for a parcel of land in East Vail.

Vail Resorts this week rejected the town’s offer to buy the company’s land for $12 million. Vail Resorts wants to build housing for 165 workers on 5.4 acres of the 23.2-acre parcel. A previous town council approved that plan. A new council wants to permanently protect the land as bighorn sheep winter habitat.

The council in April voted to pursue condemnation of the land and in August passed an emergency ordinance to halt all permitting for any work on the acreage adjacent to Interstate 70. Vail Resorts last month filed a complaint in Eagle County District Court challenging the emergency ordinance. It appears a decision by that court will be the next step as both sides gird for a prolonged fight.

Council members last month said they would use funds from the town’s overflowing Real Estate Transfer Tax fund, or RETT, to offer Vail Resorts $12 million from the parcel. That’s a bump from $8 million the council was considering earlier this spring as its planned condemnation of the land, which serves as one of the valley’s last remnants of low-elevation winter habitat for a local herd of bighorn sheep.

It’s not actually about the money, Vail Resorts says

“We’ve just been getting a lot of input from our expert consultants and legal team really understanding the condemnation process and the legal side of things,” Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid said in an interview last week. “With all that input, we felt this was a very, very fair offer to Vail Resorts. I really hope Vail Resorts will respond favorably. I mean why don’t they put it in a conservation easement and get an amazing PR story and do the right thing? We all are just scratching our heads wondering why they are fighting this.”

Bill Rock, chief operating officer of Vail Resorts’ mountain division, resoundingly rejected the offer this week, telling the town in a letter that “this is not, and has never been, about money.”

“This is about building affordable housing that the town desperately needs now to support the hundreds of employees who are the town’s lifeblood,” Rock wrote in his Oct. 3 letter. “The town’s decision to convert the East Vail parcel into open space therefore permanently eliminates affordable housing on a parcel that is not only able — but fully entitled — to provide such housing in a town that already does not have enough land left to develop. That is something no amount of money can fix.”

Langmaid said state wildlife biologists have recommended no development on the East Vail parcel, so the council suggested that Vail Resorts work with the town to develop worker housing at three other locations. Rock said the company is ready to work on those locations but said “the town has steadfastly refused to meet with us for the last several months.”

There is more work to do on those other sites. Rock, in his letter, estimated the other parcels were three to five years from being developed. The East Vail site, per the previous council’s approval after several years of planning, is “shovel ready,” Rock said, reiterating his company’s promise to deploy mitigation to limit impacts to the bighorn herd.

An animal trail inside the bighorn habitat in East Vail along Interstate 70 seen behind the erected fence on Aug. 9, 2022. Vail Resorts wants to build workforce housing on the parcel it owns in East Vail. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

“This town council’s decision to eradicate those efforts and turn shovel-ready affordable housing into open space in a town that is so limited in available, developable land and in an area that already has luxury homes and significant human activity within it, is inexplicable,” Rock wrote in his five-page letter. “It should therefore come as no surprise that Vail Resorts is unwilling to voluntarily give up its land.”

On Tuesday, the town council unanimously approved a special fund to allow donations to support the town’s effort to buy the parcel. The fund — which is collecting donations at vailbighorn.org — will help cover the town’s costs, legal fees, public relations and marketing fees, acquisition costs and maintenance fees if the parcel is acquired.

The $12 million offer ranks among the largest single expenditures in the more than 30-year history of Vail’s transfer-tax fund. The proposal would reduce the fund to about $4.1 million, but the town expects $7.5 million in annual revenue coming into the fund over the next five years. The fund is supported by revenue the town collects on each real estate transaction in the town.

The money coming into the fund will support recreation, and infrastructure projects already planned for the next five years. Leaving the fund with an annual balance around $4 million could hinder large projects, “which will require the need to prioritize projects” and “explore public-private partnerships” or “analyze acquiring additional debt,” a financial report by town staff reads.

Vail is among a dozen communities that approved taxes on real estate sales before that tax was prevented by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the tax-limiting constitutional amendment known as TABOR. A record-setting wave of high-priced home sales in 2020 and 2021 spiked real estate transfer tax collections in those 12 mountain communities by 84% compared with 2018 and 2019 collections.

Vail Resorts wants to build affordable housing for 165 workers on about 5 acres in East Vail on Interstate 70, seen here in an artist rendering. A herd of bighorn sheep winter in the area and local leaders oppose the plan, urging the company to look elsewhere for housing. (Provided by the Town of Vail)

The town council on Tuesday night voted 5-2 to approve amendments to the town budget allowing for $12 million from the transfer-tax fund. The amendments also direct $5.1 million from the Capital Projects Fund for six town employee rental housing units and $2.9 million for more acquisitions later this year.

Councilman Barry Davis voted against taking $12 million from the transfer-tax fund.

“I believe a large number of our constituents feel their voice has not been heard and they are not ready to deploy that amount of money,” Davis said.

Langmaid, in an interview, said even if real estate sales are waning, “we’ve just come off a couple banner years and we have a good amount in the RETT fund right now.”

“The overall financial health of Vail is very strong right now so we feel we are in a good position to make this offer,” she said. “we realize in the immediate years, there may be some things we need to put on hold for a little bit in terms of larger recreation-oriented projects that may fall within the RETT fund, but due to the gravity and sense of urgency and the state of the bighorn sheep, this is fiscally responsible decision that will support the long term health of the bighorn herd.”