Longform

Vail at the Crossroads

Page 6 of 9

After college, Ford settled in Vail in 1973 to work in real estate. He spent four years on the town council in the late '90s, the last two as mayor. By now the mountain where he had skied as a child had grown into Vail Resorts, the most successful ski area in North America. The town at the base, while not owned by the ski company, was emulated by resorts around the country. "The founding fathers put it together in a low-density format," Ford says. "And they did it on purpose." From the beginning, a 1 percent real-estate transfer tax went into a fund to acquire open space, resulting in the preservation of about 30 percent of otherwise developable ground in the valley.

But in the last decade, Vail has faced growing competition -- not just from other mega-resorts like Whistler or Lake Tahoe, but from the towns down-valley. With a full-time population of just 43,000, Eagle County did $2.8 billion in real-estate sales last year. "As all of this is growing," Ford says, "the Vail inside the mystical town is working very hard to go the other way."

As director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association, Lamont represents one of the most powerful but unseen constituencies in town. About 74 percent of the properties in Vail belong to "part-time residents," a politically correct way of saying people who live somewhere else most of the year -- and are legal, voting residents of those other places. "People invest in a lifestyle," Lamont points out, "particularly when you're dealing with such a wealthy group. Many people don't have a lot of confidence in the younger generation really understanding the sophistication and acumen needed to run a world-class resort."

For his regional-planning masters' degree from the University of Colorado, Lamont wrote his thesis on the physical and social aspects of Vail's urbanization. The founders then hired him as Vail's first town planner, and one of his early jobs was to draft a master plan. The town has gone through several master plans since then, including one for Lionshead and another for Vail Village, and is now working on a new one for West Vail. "The town of Vail is a very paternalistic organization, and it's only beholden to the local property owners," Lamont says. "So it doesn't reflect the community, and when you're talking about the community, you're not exclusively talking about the full-time residents. The community is full of part-time residents."

To illustrate its concerns with the Crossroads redevelopment, Lamont's group gave a 23-page memorandum to the city in June 2005, complete with aerial photos and diagrams, then followed up with two letters later that year. Although the Vail Village Homeowners Association is not part of the petition drive, it was, and remains, concerned with the town's Special Development District process.

As the town aged and certain buildings needed to be replaced, the town council would encourage redevelopment by allowing greater densities on individual parcels. But instead of throwing out or adjusting all of the municipal zoning codes, the council would create a Special Development District (SDD) and then squeeze "public benefits" and design standards out of the developer. Such a tool works in a town like Vail, where the demand to develop is high and each project can be taken on a case-by-case basis. For "public benefits," the town traditionally negotiated for affordable housing and streetscaping and lighting.

But with Solaris now going through the SDD process, the council had to decide if a bowling alley was a public benefit. And if Knobel was allowed more square footage because he was including movie theaters, would future developers try to push the envelope?

"With this new guy, the city is so desperate for any kind of development that they're willing to give him anything," says Ford. "And that's the big departure from what we've done in the past. Now that has appropriately and not surprisingly caused the old guard to come unglued. They've fought for forty years to build this in their image. So to just arbitrarily say, ŒOkay, we just want to make this change here and we're going to a much more high-density format,' that's a big change based on the vote of one councilmember."

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Jared Jacang Maher