VAIL, Colo. — There’s a narrow swath of sagebrush-covered hillside perched just above Interstate 70 that’s home to a Colorado treasure: the bighorn sheep that graze along that steep, craggy terrain. The land could also be used to help solve a chronic problem nearby: a dearth of affordable housing that threatens the future of the renowned resort town of Vail.
Each winter, the hamlet becomes an international ski destination, serving up fun, food, fashion and sport for thousands of visitors. But similar to hundreds of communities around the U.S., the influx of visitors and newcomers — from those who come for a few days to others who buy second homes — has made housing nearly impossible to find for the workers needed to support the region’s tourism.
“Someone explained to me that housing needs to be like infrastructure,” says Jenn Bruno, owner of a boutique 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, and it’s tourism.”
Just weeks before this month’s season opening at the ski resort, Bruno’s only employee was a teenager who could cover a few hours a week when her schedule permits. The restaurant across the street from her shop has been standing there, closed, for around two years now.
For more than six years, the owner of the hillside in question, the publicly traded Vail Resorts Inc., has been trying to build apartments to furnish housing for around 160 of its workers on a property called Booth Heights. That housing would free up other apartments in town, which, in turn, would benefit a resort oasis that is awash in money and millionaires, but lacks sufficient housing for the chefs, ski lift operators and cashiers who keep the community humming. But environmental concerns and some long-held skepticism about a worldwide corporation running a multimillion-dollar ski empire have created a saga filled with distrust, legal filings and no easy solution to a problem that everyone agrees is not going away.
“The housing challenge and how we address it over the next 18 to 24 months will define what this community looks like in 20 to 30 years," said Chris Romer, the chair of Eagle County’s version of the chamber of commerce.
Vail Resorts has long wanted to build apartments on a five-acre corner of the 23-acre parcel situated on the low point of a bighorn sheep habitat that rises out of a rocky field just east of I-70.
Opponents of the construction, including the mayor, Kim Langmaid, cite studies that show the 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 snow of the season, five sheep were, in fact, grazing down near the would-be construction area.
“Some people say, ‘Well, they’ll just move,’” Langmaid said. “But they can’t move anywhere else.”
Increasing real estate prices and the internet-driven vacation-rental market have persistently squeezed regular workers out of the center of town with only 5,600 full-time residents. In surrounding Eagle County, the median home price for a single-family home hit $1.2 million last summer.
Advocates of the project say three acres of sheep habitat is a price worth paying, especially considering that the town’s largest employer is willing to foot the bill and find solutions for the sheep.
“We do need to mitigate that land and make sure we help the sheep herd,” 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 sleeping in their cars, and then still helping us by getting up every day and serving us.”
The 160 beds Vail Resort wants to add, at a proposed cost of $17 million, looked like a done deal when the project began. It figured to offer relief to an area where “fair market rent” for a studio apartment was recently calculated at $1,132 a month. The town council green-lit the project, and even helped the resort defend the construction in court against groups concerned about how the building would impact the sheep.
Construction was nearly ready to start, but turnover on the town council, driven by elections that focused on the housing shortage, brought the project to a standstill. Instead of collaborating with Vail Resorts, the town council shifted, and is now trying to condemn the property. It recently offered $12 million for the land.
Vail Resorts rejected that offer with a tersely worded letter from executive vice president Bill Rock, who recalled the project initially “had broad support from the Town of Vail and was received with significant enthusiasm by the Town’s staff and its Council.”
One of the council 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 for condemnation, based, he said, on an analysis from a scientist who said the size of the habitat was appropriate for the number of sheep living there.
“I think we’ll look back at this, 40 or 50 years down the road, and be glad we decided not to build there,” Seibert said of Booth Heights, which remains the way it has for decades — untouched and peaceful, save the steady stream of 18-wheelers blazing past on the interstate below.
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