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Grand Lake, still reeling from East Troublesome fire, is being shaken again by mayoral recall over housing

Mayor Steve Kudron is the target of a recall election fueled by concerns over housing and keeping the mountain town’s character intact.

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Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron stands in front his gift shop on Grand Avenue on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. The mayor is facing a recall led by long-term Grand Lake residents. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Like a dozen Grand Lake mayors before him, Steve Kudron smiled and waved at his constituents during the annual Buffalo Days parade last month.

But Kudron added a twist no one had ever seen in 74 years of Buffalo Days. The vintage Hummer he paraded in sported a sign reading: “Vote No! Stop the Recall of Mayor Steve.” The hubcaps were replaced with “no bully” logos. And the vehicle was flanked by people waving their own “vote no” signs.

This juxtaposition of the old with the new is at the heart of the Grand Lake mayoral recall election, which is scheduled for Oct. 5. On one side are longtime residents who are afraid the small town’s character and sense of community are being destroyed. On the other side are relative newcomers like Kudron who want to move quickly to address a changing town’s needs. 

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And at the center of the conflict is a rising crisis that other mountain towns have faced for decades: how to provide affordable housing for workers and young families.

“It’s small-town politics, but it’s really a microcosm for the bigger world,” says Kirsten Heckendorf, a member of the Grand Lake Area Citizens Against Recall group.

A sign urging residents to retain Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron seen in town on Tuesday. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lakefront boomtown

The 1-mile-square town of Grand Lake, which is wedged between Colorado’s largest natural lake and the western entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park, has a population of around 500 people. But some Grand Lake residents also view the thousands of second-home owners in nearby Grand County as part of the community. And that number is growing.

“A lot of people have discovered Grand Lake over the last couple of years,” Town Manager John Crone says. “It’s only two hours from Denver. People are realizing it doesn’t take any more time to get to Grand County than to Summit County.”

Within the past year, property values in and around Grand Lake have gone “absolutely crazy,” Crone says. “We’re seeing houses selling for $800 a square foot, with no view and almost no land.”

Many of those are second homes that are only occupied during the summer. Crone says Grand Lake has traditionally had a 16-week tourism season, from June through September. Winter visitors to Grand County have mainly focused on the ski town of Winter Park and, to a lesser extent, the nearby U.S. 40 towns of Fraser, Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs. But increasingly, cold-weather tourists are heading to Grand Lake to snowmobile, cross-country ski and ice fish. 

An out-of-state tourist chats at the ice cream shop along Grand Avenue in Grand Lake. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Crone says that’s resulted in more need for year-round, affordable workforce housing, which is in short supply throughout Grand Lake and Grand County.  A 2018 report said by 2023, Grand County would need 175 more affordable housing units. But that was before the coronavirus-fueled rush to the high country  and the East Troublesome fire that destroyed or damaged 366 homes.

How other towns cope

On Aug. 17, the Winter Park Town Council began discussing a proposal that would offer cash incentives to short-term rental owners willing to lease their properties to local businesses. The businesses would then sublease those rental units to their employees. 

If approved, the town would spend $325,000 on the program, with incentives ranging from $5,000 for a studio leased for six months, to $20,000 for a three-bedroom unit leased for a year. The goal is to create 40 new workforce housing units. 

In Granby, which has traditionally supplied much of the workforce housing for towns and resorts throughout Grand County, there’s land available for affordable housing—but no one to build it. Granby Town Manager Ted Cherry says the town was deeded 30 acres in 2006 as part of the Granby Ranch housing development annexation agreement, and there have been plans for years to build workforce and affordable housing on the land. 

But most private developers are busy building new, market-rate housing or rebuilding homes burned last fall in the East Troublesome fire. And trying to get Housing and Urban Development or Colorado Housing and Finance Authority funding for affordable housing is a bureaucratic nightmare, Cherry says.

Homes along the shoreline of Grand Lake with visible burn scars from East Troublesome Fire inside Rocky Mountain National Park in the background . (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Grand County does have a housing authority, but it’s understaffed and underfunded. It mainly manages three senior affordable-housing facilities in Granby and Kremmling. But that may soon change. 

Sheena Darland, operations manager for the Grand County Housing Authority, says she’s been working with local town attorneys on intergovernmental agreements to form a regional housing authority that would be funded by a mill levy or sales tax. 

“We’ve been trying to get this done for a year, and it seems like we now have support or buy-in from all municipalities in the county,” Darland says. If all goes well, she says funding for the new housing authority could be on the November 2022 ballot. 

A grand property battle

In the meantime, Grand County towns are on their own when it comes to providing not only workforce housing, but also housing for younger, lower-income residents who are leaving town because they can’t find an affordable place to live.

“The reality is that people live in their campers, in the forest that got burnt,” Kudron says. 

He says that’s a big reason why the Grand Lake Town Board of Trustees moved quickly last year to buy 21 acres of undeveloped property in unincorporated Grand County, about a mile northwest of downtown.

Property owner Tom Stanley tried for over a decade to develop the 21 acres and annex it into Grand Lake, with plans to build about 100 single-family homes and duplexes. In mid-2019, he listed the property for sale for $1.3 million. 

In April 2020, Grand Lake residents voted in four new members to the town’s six-person board. Kudron, who moved to Grand Lake in 2012 and opened the Quacker Gift Shop, was elected to a four-year mayoral term by an 83-13 vote. 

“There’s new, fresh blood on the town trustee board, and we’re doing things differently,” says Ernie Bjorkman, the former Denver TV news anchor who’s part of the new wave of trustees. “The town has been talking for 20 years about affordable housing, but hasn’t been doing enough.”

The board reportedly discussed buying the Stanley property during its retreat in August 2020. About two weeks later, the board held a closed-door executive session regarding negotiations for the property. Two weeks after that, on Sept. 28, 2020, it voted unanimously in a public meeting to approve a contract to buy the Stanley property for $1.25 million. 

“Since we’re surrounded by national forests and parks, this is the only big piece of developable property left. We felt we had better take it and land-bank it,” Bjorkman says. “My thought is that we’d be better stewards of that land than a developer coming in and building 100 homes.”

Tom and Kathy Weydert, residents of Grand Lake of 34 years, pause for a photo at the town park. The Weyderts and several residents filed a petition to recall the mayor citing lack of transparency and communication in the town’s planning. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But some residents, including Tom Weydert, who has lived in Grand Lake for more than 34 years and served on the town board for 20 years before being defeated in the 2020 election, have concerns about how quickly the board voted to make such a big purchase and the lack of public input. In December, Weydert, who is also the Grand County assessor, and other residents circulated a petition against the property purchase.

About 325 people signed the petition, many of them second-home owners in Columbine Lake Country Club, a Grand County neighborhood that backs up to the Stanley property. Their outcry, along with a 107-page letter from a lawyer hired by Weydert, his wife, Kathy, and two Columbine Lake homeowners, led to a virtual town meeting on Jan. 19 that 144 people attended.

Some town trustees cited that opposition when voting during a Jan. 25 board meeting on a financing package to buy the Stanley property and a small park the town had been leasing. The package was approved by a 4-3 vote, with Kudron voting in favor. 

The town has since hired a consultant to determine the best use of the Stanley property. Along with forging a public-private partnership to build affordable and workforce housing, other ideas include relocating the town’s public works facility and preserving some land as open space. Kudron promises that the consultant’s plan will have plenty of opportunities for public input. 

But Weydert says the town should have worked out all of this, along with water rights, road access, an environmental study and other key development logistics, before buying the property. He would have liked the trustees to put down a retainer on the property, hold more public meetings and then have an election about the purchase. 

“The government used to listen to the citizenry,” Weydert says. “We need to be kinder, gentler and more transparent.”

“A very vocal face of change”

Kudron says Tom Stanley was only interested in a “straight sale” that didn’t involve a retainer. And Kudron opposed more delays. 

“I’m pretty adamant about things getting done,” he says. “Grand Lake is changing and while I didn’t cause it — the world caused it — I am a very vocal face of change.” 

And now he’s the face of a recall. In June, Kathy Weydert and three other residents filed a petition with the town to recall Kudron, citing improper leadership, fiscal irresponsibility, violation of Colorado open meetings laws and insufficient financial and comprehensive planning. Many of the charges have to do with the Stanley property purchase. 

After a challenge from Kudron’s allies about improper signature collecting, an independent hearing officer ruled the petition was valid and the recall election could proceed.

Voters who are residents of Grand Lake will decide whether Kudron should be recalled and whether Judy Burke, the only person who filed to be mayor as part of the recall election, should be elected. Burke, who owns Grand Realty and was Grand Lake’s mayor from 2004 to 2016, says she’s on the ballot because “I feel like we need to get things straightened out quickly. I have the background and I know how to do that.”

Town Manager Crone says ballots will be mailed to the approximately 300 registered voters in mid-September. He estimates the recall election will cost about $10,000, plus up to another $50,000 in staff time and professional and legal fees. 

A fisherman walks back to shore after fishing at the town park in Grand Lake. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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