Vail Resorts last week announced plans to fast-track four housing projects at resorts in Utah, British Columbia, Vermont and Vail, adding 875 units for the company’s workers as part of a promise made last month to refocus on employees with more pay and housing. 

The projects will be somewhat easy at Park City Mountain Resort, Whistler and Okemo in Vermont. But in Vail, North America’s largest ski resort operator will face angry opposition as it returns to the business of real estate development with a proposed $17 million complex for 165 workers. Vail Resorts plans to protect 17 acres of the 23 acres it owns from development and spend $100,000 to improve habitat for bighorn sheep that winter there. But the town council does not want any development in the habitat.

“I’m ready to go to war with Vail Resorts over this if we have to,” said Vail town councilman Kevin Foley, who expects the council will vote to condemn the property — which would prevent any development — if Vail Resorts applies for a building permit for its Booth Heights property in East Vail. (The council’s agenda for its Tuesday meeting includes an executive session with the town attorney to “develop a strategy for negotiations” with Vail Resorts.)

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Vail Resorts discovered it owned the property in 2016. (It had been listed in county records for decades as owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation.) Vail Resorts asked the town to rezone the property on Interstate 70 from allowing duplexes on every acre to higher-density housing on about 5 acres. The town council narrowly approved the plan in 2019, despite ardent opposition from a minority of council members and neighbors concerned about the herd. An Eagle County District Court in 2020 dismissed a lawsuit filed by neighbors challenging the town’s approval of the project. 

There’s a new council now, and the votes are there to stop development of Booth Heights, Foley said. 

The council points to other parcels in the valley owned by Vail Resorts where housing would be a better fit. The operator has 12 acres near Lionshead Village where it once proposed — and won initial approval for in 2012 — a third village for the Vail ski area. 

“I don’t see them acting in our best interest or the town’s best interest,” Foley said. “Look, we need employees and we need housing but we don’t need it at the expense of a herd of sheep who have been here longer than any of us have been here.”

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. Vail Resorts wants to build workforce housing on the parcel it owns in East Vail, but town officials do not want housing in the area where a bighorn herd spends every winter. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

A Vail Resorts spokesman provided a statement saying “any effort to delay affordable housing that is already approved and ready to be built is inappropriate, especially given the urgency of the affordable housing crisis in Vail, and as high-end homes in this same area are built without interference from the town.”

Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid is quick to point out that council opposition to development at the East Vail parcel has nothing to do with vocal neighbors opposing the housing project.

“Booth Heights would have been built right now and town probably would have been funding it were it not for the bighorn sheep,” Langmaid said. “Vail Resorts has had multiple opportunities to build housing with us and we have tried and tried again to get them to pursue other alternatives. We are very concerned about the bighorn sheep there and we don’t want to lose them.”

Fixing labor struggles with housing

Vail Resorts struggled this season to staff its resorts after selling 2.1 million advance tickets and passes. The company was lambasted for its inability to open lifts and terrain during the busy holiday season last year. Last month, Vail Resorts chief Kirsten Lynch pledged $175 million to bump the starting wage for seasonal employees to $20 an hour. Lynch also pledged to develop more housing for its workers. The plan announced last week includes 441 units at Park City Mountain Resort, 240 units at Whistler-Blackcomb and 30 units at Okemo.

Beth Howard, the chief operating officer at the Vail ski area, said in a statement that the company’s $17 million Booth Heights plan will be “met with concern and opposition from some in the community.” 

Vail Resorts has steadily shed its real estate business in the past decade but plans to build Booth Heights itself and has hired Denver-based OZ Architecture to design the housing. (The previous plan involved Vail Resorts selling the parcel to a developer.) The company said it expects to open Booth Heights by December 2023. 

Howard said Vail Resorts will spend $100,000 for habitat improvements for the bighorn herd. She said the company “developed extensive wildlife protections” for bighorn after working for three years with Colorado Parks and Wildlife on the property. 

“Every new development brings environmental concerns, and we took seriously those raised in regard to this project,” Howard said in the statement. “In addition to doing our part to mitigate environmental impacts, we must also balance those concerns with the urgent need for affordable housing.”

Vail Resorts officials noted town approvals for mansions near the property, including luxury  duplexes on nearby Katsos Ranch Road built in 2020. 

“We, as a community, need to be careful not to give the green light on high-end expensive homes, but then block affordable housing in the same area,” Howard said. 

Opposition to affordable housing across Colorado’s high country

There is a long history of opposition to projects that increase housing density in Colorado’s high country. Even as skyrocketing prices push out more workers, that time-worn anger continues. Local papers are swollen with letters to the editor and columns warning of impacts to traffic, roads, schools and “community character” from higher-density, multi-family development.

There are very few high-density housing development projects in mountain valleys that do not generate opposition. Here’s a list of a few projects stirring opposition right now:

* Last November, the Glenwood Springs city council voted to annex and rezone 16 acres in West Glenwood, where a developer wants to build 300 units next to a tired mall. The 480 Donegan plan calls for 60 rentals for locals earning close to median income, 200 more affordable workforce rentals and 40 market-rate townhomes, with donated land for a park and a fire station. Neighbors opposed to the annexation pushed the plan onto the city’s May election ballot, arguing voters should repeal the annexation over concerns that the added population could clog evacuation in case of a fire. 

The Glenwood Springs Citizens for Responsible Development group urges voters to remember when a pre-evacuation warning due to fire in August 2020 led to gridlock in West Glenwood.

“Fresh in our minds, as we sat in our stationary vehicles, were the images of people burning to death” while fleeing California’s Camp Fire in 2018, reads the group’s plea to voters.

* A hearing earlier this month with the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission saw neighbors of a proposed affordable housing project along Colorado 82 near Basalt lined up in opposition. 

“Eagle County is responsible when the first kid gets killed on this road,” one neighbor said, opposing the 7-year-old plan called The Fields — to build up to 135 residences on 19 acres now zoned for nine homes. (There is a lot of support for the project, too, with the planning commission receiving dozens of emails supporting the development plan.)

* In Telluride, the town and San Miguel County plan to buy three 35-acre parcels — each zoned to allow one home — where the municipalities propose a rezoning to “community housing,” which allows for more density. 

“How would you react if you paid $1 million for a lot next to this proposal and you built a $2 million house? You followed the HOA rules and now the county wants to build 400 local housing units next to you? Think about that,” said a longtime Telluride real estate broker who asked not to be named, worrying that community members would blast them for opposing affordable housing.

* The Telluride Historic and Architectural Review Commission is struggling to adjust plans for the town’s proposed 29-unit Voodoo Lounge affordable housing project to fit the town’s design guidelines for buildings in a National Landmark District. The town council has called the project up for review before the historic review commission has finished its work with the architects. 

“That is creating a lot of stress in our community,” said Sherri Harvey, a 12-year member of the commission. “People say as the developer they shouldn’t stop the review process or be the ones to step in to apply the design guidelines. Our board is threatening to quit, and lawsuits are already being whispered.”

*Fire and police officials are raising safety concerns around a proposed 50-unit affordable housing complex in downtown Rifle. The Rifle town council has expressed support for the project.

Supply chain, labor crisis, high interest rates challenging builders

Local opposition and zoning challenges surrounding housing density are not the only headwinds facing builders of affordable housing in Colorado’s high country. 

Yampa Valley Housing Authority Executive Director Jason Peasley watches as the first slab is poured at his organization’s latest affordable housing project along U.S. Highway 40 in Steamboat Springs on May 7, 2021. The Sunlight Crossing development, built by Gorman & Co, will have 90 rental units priced for residents earning between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

New residents are remodeling and booking contractors for the next several years. Supply chain issues are making it difficult to find building materials. A critical lack of trade workers — largely due to the lack of workforce housing in mountain communities — is challenging builders. And in recent months the cost of borrowing has doubled as the Federal Reserve tackles inflation with increased interest rates. 

“I don’t know if any community in the high country is immune to all this right now,” said Kimball Crangle, who heads Gorman & Co.’s Colorado projects and has built 900 affordable units in the Front Range, Summit County and Steamboat Springs.

Developers are navigating what Crangle called “a very unprecedented time,” with shifting forces that could lead to project delays, re-designs, postponed approvals and spiking costs. 

In communities where residents are fighting development plans, these challenges can be “fuel for their fire” as projects stall, Crangle said. 

“For NIMBYs, this is going to feel like a win at a time when the ones who are losing are workers commuting long distances and living in overcrowded conditions,” Crangle said. “And the employers, big and small, including ski resorts, hospitals and school districts, that are struggling to find staff.”

Legislative help with housing is coming. A new law allows more than two dozen Colorado communities to possibly redirect tourism taxes toward housing. There’s a flood of federal money coming into the state, too — as much as $400 million for affordable housing — that could fast-track projects. But communities will be battling each other for a share of that money.

“Communities have an opportunity if they are working together to leverage those funds and make a big impact, but it’s going to be competitive between communities, based on who can access that money and deploy a plan within the timelines that are required,” Crangle said.  

High interest rates and the rising cost of new construction could drive more developers toward converting existing buildings, like hotels, into workforce housing. But as communities crack down on short-term rentals, taking hotels out of the lodging mix could impact tourist-based economies. 

 “I hope the name of the game will be finding a balanced approach that works for the community and balancing the supply of housing and lodging,” Crangle said. “Communities that block housing are going to stifle that balance.”

George Ruther, the director of the Town of Vail’s housing department, said rising construction costs, interest rates and inflation have made the housing problem in his town even more acute. 

He’s glad to see Vail Resorts stepping up with a plan, noting that the last housing project built by the resort operator is almost 20 years old.

“And that came about purely as an obligation to meet a housing mitigation requirement,” Ruther said. “As the largest employer in Vail, housing solutions from Vail Resorts are much needed and long overdue.”

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