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Minturn wrestles with the decade-old promises of a big-dream developer

In 2008, resort developer Bobby Ginn offered Minturn residents $162 million in perks if they annexed his mountaintop project, which he never built. So what about those million-dollar promises?

Bicyclists cross Main Street Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Minturn, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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MINTURN — It’s been more than a decade since Bobby Ginn’s grandiose dream for Minturn collapsed, but the community is still dealing with the fallout. 

The former railroad town’s council on Wednesday will weigh a proposal to reduce the millions of dollars in perks the bankrupt Florida developer promised Minturn in 2008. A showdown is brewing as the lender who supported Ginn sculpts much smaller plans but some town residents demand those big promises. It’s the latest chapter in a big-dream development saga for the town of 1,100 that has somehow avoided the intense development of Colorado’s other resort regions. 

Ginn’s plan — dreamed up by the golf resort developer in the heady aughts, when mountain real estate was setting records — called for 1,700 homes, a golf course, private ski lifts and a 13-story hotel spanning more than 5,300 acres from the top of Battle Mountain to the Eagle River between Minturn and Red Cliff.

Today, the company that loaned Ginn money for the project — private equity firm Lubert Adler — has scaled everything back. The top of the mountain was rezoned and sold. Eagle River water managers are planning a reservoir where Ginn wanted a waterfront golf course and village. Lubert Adler is eyeing the final 540 acres — from Minturn’s Maloit Park to the Eagle Mine Superfund site — for local housing and single-family homes.

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Ginn promised Minturn the moon and more in 2008, and those commitments remain a sticking point for both Lubert Adler and the town. In exchange for Minturn annexing roughly 4,300 acres of his property, Ginn promised cash for a community recreation center, a water treatment plant, sidewalks, bike trails, parking lots, a park, scholarships and even $22 million to buy Forest Service land for the town. In total the deal would have delivered $162 million to Minturn, roughly 60 times the town’s annual budget. He promised more than $11.3 million as an escrowed down payment. 

Nearly 90% of the town’s voters approved the annexation.

“They owe us this money. It’s black and white,” said Minturn local and former town councilman Tom Sullivan, who is motivating residents and council members in opposition to the pending vote on a new funding agreement.

Sullivan said a new deal with property owner Lubert Adler could erase at least $7.2 million the developer owes the town under a 2008 agreement forged by Ginn. 

“Is the council looking out for our financial interest or the financial interest of this multi-billion-dollar hedge fund? It’s embarrassing,” Sullivan said. 

Actually, the old plan is dead and a new plan would have “a less dense footprint” than what was envisioned in 2008, said Kristin Kenney Williams, spokeswoman for what is now called the Battle North project

Battle North developers have been meeting with Minturn locals for many months and a new plan is taking shape. 

“We want to create a neighborhood extension of Minturn featuring community housing, trail connectivity and open space,” Kenney Williams said. 

A reservoir that could help with water storage is being developed by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, which is under contract to buy the dry Bolts Lake parcel from Lubert Adler. Ginn had promised the Bolts Lake area could help support Minturn’s water needs and a new treatment plant accommodate growth.  

Lubert Adler isn’t keen on paying for a new water plant because there aren’t plans for 1,700 new homes in the town. But the developer can’t begin discussing water storage funding, help with a new treatment plant, a specific number of new homes or any other possible benefits to the town without a new funding agreement.

“The residents and business owners of Minturn deserve to review a project and updated benefits reflective of what we have heard from them over the past year and a half,” Kenney Williams said, noting that residents want “a variety of housing,” with trails and more recreation, water infrastructure and clean-up around the Eagle Mine Superfund site. “Minturn has told us they want to remain unique and maintain the Minturn way of life and that their quality of life only gets better. We think that our updated benefits, with an updated plan, will reflect those wishes.”

Vehicles on Main Street Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Minturn, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ginn had grand plans for the mountain adjoining Vail ski area’s Blue Sky Basin, which he bought for more than $32 million in 2005. The developer envisioned billions of dollars worth of luxury homes surrounding golf courses and private chair lifts climbing above 10,000 feet. His spectacular collapse in the recession left his lenders at Lubert Adler exploring a variety of plans.

“Quite frankly, after Ginn left town, I started thinking we might have really dodged a bullet,” said Minturn Mayor Pro Tem Earle Bidez. “I think a big gated community on the hill above town would have drastically affected Minturn.” 

Failed Florida developer Bobby Ginn planned 265 homes in the long-abandoned mining town of Gilman, which is part of the Eagle Mine Superfund site. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The company, which tapped Canadian developer Crave Real Estate Ventures to handle the Battle Mountain project, in 2016 sought Minturn’s approval to work with the Forest Service on a land swap. That deal would have given the White River National Forest the Battle Mountain property in exchange for valley floor acreage near Meadow Mountain north of Minturn. Locals did not like the idea of homes in or around the popular Meadow Mountain open space. 

In 2017, the developer re-drew plans for the Battle Mountain property, calling for fewer than 100 homes on 35-acre lots instead of 1,000 estates around a private ski area. In 2017 the developer listed 4,600 acres on Battle Mountain for $19.5 million and last year sold the property to Vail resident Phil Hadley. Now the company is focused on developing the remaining 540 acres between Maloit Park and Bolts Lake, where Ginn had once proposed a golf course, 13-story hotel and 750 homes.

“What was approved to be built in 2008, when all of this land was annexed into the town of Minturn, is not reflective of what we or its residents feel is right for today and for the foreseeable future,” Lorne Bassel, a principal with Crave Community and general partner in Battle North, said in October in a statement announcing the sale of the 4,600-acre Battle Mountain parcel. 

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“We want housing for residents” 

A 2012 amendment of the 2008 annexation agreement between the town and developer released the $11.6 million in escrow, giving the town $4.4 million and Lubert Adler $7.2 million. That amendment outlined how both the town and developer could spend the money and if they followed those guidelines, they would not have to replenish the escrow account. It also required Lubert Adler to pay the town $15,000 a month to cover the cost of managing the company’s project proposals. The developer stopped making the monthly payments in January 2019.

A key part of the 2012 agreement says Lubert Adler must pay back the $7.2 million unless the 2008 annexation agreement is renegotiated or if the developer submits a formal plan — a Planned Unit Development — for buildings on its land. The 2012 amendment to the 2008 plan also allowed Lubert Adler to not repay the $7.2 million if the developer spent that money on certain parts of the project.

Lubert Adler recently provided the Minturn Town Council with a spreadsheet showing it had spent $19.1 million on the project between 2013 and 2020, including $9.4 million in “overhead,” and $1.2 million for Environmental Protection Agency-mandated remediation at the Eagle Mine Superfund site.

“If the developer has spent the $7,210,000 in developer’s funds as provided,” in the 2012 agreement, “there is no obligation to replenish the escrow,” reads the 701-page packet Minturn staff prepared for the town council’s June 16 meeting.

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That council packet, which notes the developer collecting ”extensive and ongoing” community input on what could happen at the property, suggests that Lubert Adler could avoid paying back the escrow if the developer chose to de-annex its land and pursue approval for development south of town through Eagle County instead of the town. If that happens, the staff report says, Minturn would have to pay for an attorney and consultants to review development plans without collecting sewer tap fees, real estate transfer taxes and other benefits that come from development inside the town boundary.

“If there were developer funds remaining to be placed back into escrow, the town would have a remedy to recoup that money if the developer chooses to de-annex,” the report reads. 

The town council is hiring an outside attorney to closely study the 2008 annexation agreement and the 2012 amendment. Bidez said whatever the town decides, voters will have a final say on adjusting the 2008 annexation agreement. 

Bidez, the city’s mayor pro tem, said the town is in the middle of developing its own water system, with additional treatment capacity. Without proposed upgrades to the town’s water system, monthly water bills for homeowners could reach $200 or more, Bidez said. 

“It’s possible we could have water fees that would definitely be the highest in the county,” he said.

A pedestrian checks his shoulder as he crosses Main Street Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Minturn, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lynn Feiger, an attorney who has lived in Minturn for 14 years, sent a letter to the town council last week asking them to force the developer to honor the promises made in 2008. 

Lubert Adler owes the town more than $7.2 million, Feiger said. A 2008 water agreement that was part of the annexation plan guarantees Minturn $9 million worth of water rights and a new water treatment plant, “regardless of whether there is any development,” Feiger wrote in her eight-page letter. 

“It appears the town is afraid of the developer’s threat of litigation and threat to de-annex from the town,” Feiger wrote. “In fact, the developer’s claims against the town are frivolous and the town has strong claims against the developer.”

Feiger said the Battle Mountain developer has “brazenly ignored” its obligations for environmental remediation of the Superfund site as well as promises for water rights and a water-treatment plant. Considering that Lubert Adler has said it will not return the $7.2 million and did not pay $15,000 a month last year, “Minturn is engaged in self-defeating behavior” by not ending negotiations with the developer and demanding payment, Feiger wrote to the council.

Fees collected from Battle North homes could give the town money for water system upgrades. Bidez guessed that a variety of 250 new homes — a mix of smaller units and larger homes — could generate up to $4 million in fees for the town. County commissioners have told the town that they have less control over development in unincorporated parts of the county compared to what a town could control in its boundary, Bidez said.

“I would like to see what we could work out with them and then this will be a vote of the people and the process will happen pretty much like it did in 2008, with residents deciding if they want this or not,” Bidez said. “We have been doing this for 15 years now and it’s still a big deal for Minturn, we could be adding 200 to 400 units to a town of 500 households. That’s a big change. 

“One of the main things we will work on is getting affordable housing here,” he said. “We want to do something that can keep the cost of living in Minturn as low as possible. We don’t want to be a vacation-home ghost town. We want housing for residents.”

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