Vail, Colorado. – A narrow patch of sagebrush-covered hills perched just above Interstate 70 is home to a Colorado treasure: the bighorn sheep that graze along that rugged, steep terrain. The land could also be used to help solve a perennial problem in the neighborhood: the scarcity of affordable housing that threatens the future of the popular resort town of Vail.
Each winter, the village becomes an international ski destination, offering fun, food, fashion, and sports to thousands of visitors. But like 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 the workers needed to support tourism in the area.
“Someone explained to me that housing should be like infrastructure,” says Jane Bruno, a shop owner in the heart of Vail. We need to treat it like roads and bridges. And we need to make sure we have it, especially in a community like Vail, where we have one industry, which is tourism.”
Just weeks before the ski resort opens this month’s season, Bruno’s only employee is a teenager who can cover a few hours a week when her schedule allows. The restaurant across from her store had been standing there, closed, for about two years.
For more than six years the owner of the hills in question, the publicly traded company Vail Resorts, had been trying to build flats to furnish housing for about 160 of its workers on a property called Booth Heights. This housing would provide other apartments in the city, which in turn would benefit the resort oasis that is flush with money and millionaires, but lacks adequate housing for the chefs, ski lift operators, and cashiers who maintain the community. But environmental concerns and some lingering suspicions about a global company running a multimillion-dollar skateboarding empire have created a saga full of mistrust and legal filings, and there is no easy solution to a problem that everyone agrees will never end.
“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,” said Chris Romer, president of the Eagle County Chamber of Commerce transcript.
Vail Resorts has long wanted to build condos on a five-acre corner of its 23-acre lot that sits on a low point of habitat for the bighorn sheep that rise from a rocky field east of I-70.
Opponents of the building, including Mayor Kim Langmaid, cite studies showing that sheep naturally migrate to what would be the building area in winter, when the vegetation is higher covered with snow. Last month, shortly after the first big snow of the season, five sheep were grazing near the potential construction area.
“Some people say, ‘Well, they’re just going to move,'” Langmeade said. “But they can’t move anywhere else.”
Increasing real estate prices and an online paid vacation rental market have kept regular workers away from the city center with a population of just 5,600 full-time people. In surrounding Eagle County, the average single-family home price was $1.2 million last summer.
Defenders of the project say three acres of habitat for the sheep is a price worth paying, especially given that the city’s largest employer is willing to foot the bill and find solutions for the sheep.
“We need to lighten this land and make sure we help the sheep,” said Bruno. “But I also don’t see why people aren’t bothered about it in a rich society like ours, with so much to offer, we have kids that sleep in their cars, and then we still help by getting up every day and doing us a favor.”
The 160-bed Vail Resorts wanted to add, at a proposed cost of $17 million, looked like a done deal when the project began. It has emerged to provide relief to an area where “fair market rent” for a studio apartment was recently calculated at $1,132 per month. The city council greenlit the project and even helped the resort defend the construction in court against groups concerned about how the building affected sheep.
Construction was almost ready to begin, but the turnover of the municipal council, spurred by an election focused on the housing shortage, stalled the project. Instead of teaming up with Vail Resorts, the city council has shifted, and is now trying to have the property condemned. Recently offered $12 million for the land.
Vail Resorts declined this offer with a strongly worded letter from Executive Vice President Bill Rock, who notes that the project initially “had broad support from the Town of Vail and was received with great enthusiasm by the Town staff and Council.”
One of the board members is Pete Seibert Jr., son of the ski resort’s co-founder. Seibert initially supported the project, but changed his mind and voted in favor of condemnation, he said, based on an analysis from a scientist who said the size of the habitat is appropriate for the number of sheep living there.
“I think we’ll look at this, 40 or 50 years down the road, and we’ll be glad we decided not to build there,” Seibert said of Booth Heights, which has remained untouched for decades. The constant stream of 18-wheelers gliding by on the highway below.
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