A chain link fence is the only human-made feature on an empty stretch of land along the frontage road off I-70 in East Vail. Vail’s town council intends to keep it that way.
Vail Resorts – which owns the empty plot – has other plans. Or at least, they did have other plans for it. The Broomfield-based company proposed building affordable housing on the site for its workers. The development would house 165 people spread over five acres.
The resort giant and the town are facing off over the development as the need for affordable housing grows more urgent in mountain towns across Colorado. Vail’s town council voted this week to condemn the land where the parcel sits, giving the local government the right to seize the land using eminent domain in order to conserve it as habitat for the bighorn sheep that can frequently be seen grazing off the highway in the area.
The tussle over this particular site has been going on for years. It shows how difficult it can be to get people on the same page in these situations, especially in the state’s mountain towns where the interests of recreation, conservation and expensive real estate have to find common ground. Everybody agrees there’s a desperate need for more affordable housing, but it’s not easy to agree on how to do it.
Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid — who voted in favor of condemning the land — said the risk to the herd of sheep is too great to develop this particular parcel, and that the town has offered up alternative options. The fence that cordons off the site was put up after several sheep were struck by cars.
“The challenge is putting up affordable housing right in the middle of their critical winter range will severely jeopardize their existence,” she said.
Vail Resorts points to the cluster of luxury homes that sits less than five minutes down the road and claims the town is fine with high-end construction while trying to shut out affordable housing. Langmaid notes the subdivision in question was approved decades ago, and said it likely wouldn’t get approved to be built today.
The town council’s Tuesday vote to condemn the property followed three hours of contentious public comment, offering a window onto how the fight for affordable housing is playing out in one of the state’s biggest resort communities.
“We saw a full-page ad in our community's newspaper from some who are calling for government intervention to stop an approved housing project from going forward,” said Alex Boian, senior director of community relations for Vail. “I wonder how many of you who moved here decades ago when affordable housing wasn't at a crisis level and now want to stop this project have ever had to worry about finding a home that doesn't break the bank. I would guess not too many.”
Other people stood up to make impassioned defenses of the sheep.
“We can put housing somewhere else, but they can’t move. They can’t handle more stress. They can’t vote. They can’t be here,” said Todd Winslow Piece, a photographer based in Vail.
When the final vote was tallied, Mayor Langmaid said taking over the land isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“We don't have to do it. We're just saying we can do it if we can't find another solution .… It requires us to go into a period of good faith negotiations. So I hope that during this period, we can continue to work hard, roll up our sleeves, do whatever it takes,” she said. “It’s been a long road and we need to continue to work harder. I don't know what we've been doing wrong, but we gotta do it differently.”
In a statement, Vail Resorts said it’s “deeply saddened and disappointed” by the vote. It has not said what it intends to do next to either challenge the condemnation or to accept the vote.
“The Town of Vail has not attempted to block any of the new home construction, or condemn any of the more than 100 luxury homes, in the same sheep habitat,” the statement said.
It’s not clear what will happen next. But whatever the fate of this five-acre plot, there are no easy answers.
“This is only scratching the surface of what we need to do,” said John Plack, a spokesperson for Vail Resorts.