VAIL — The Vail town council on Tuesday voted 4-3 to condemn a parcel where Vail Resorts plans to build affordable housing, citing concerns over the impact of development in winter habitat for a herd of bighorn sheep. A final vote in early May could prevent any development on the 23 acres owned by the ski area operator.
The project has stirred passionate opposition from neighbors who want to protect the bighorn and workers who can’t find a place to live during a housing crisis that has impacted Vail Resorts’ ability to staff its operations.
Dozens of Vail Resorts employees, all wearing their name tags, showed up at the council chambers Tuesday night in support of the worker housing plan.
“We are in a crisis. We all know about it. We see it. We live it. We must address this crisis now if Vail is to continue being Vail,” said Beth Howard, the head of Vail ski area. “Look at the people in this room. These are my team members. Now tell them they can’t live in East Vail while many of the luxury homeowners do live in bighorn habitat.”
The Vail town council approved the plan to develop worker apartments and townhomes for 165 employees in 2019. An Eagle County District Court judge affirmed the decision, dismissing a lawsuit brought by neighbors of the project. Then Vail Resorts paused the project in 2020, along with much of its capital spending during the pandemic.
A new council was elected in 2020 and this one had the votes to condemn the property. The council met in executive session for two hours on Tuesday before the evening meeting and held its vote on the condemnation with no discussion.
The council received more than 140 emails from residents and workers, Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid told the packed chambers on Tuesday.
Vail Resorts proposes spending $100,000 to mitigate impacts to the bighorn herd. It plans to protect about 17 acres of the property from any development. The town and company’s impact report studying the project suggests the plan’s 42 apartments and 31 townhomes could be built without impacting the herd.
One of the arguments raised by Vail Resorts points to home development near the parcel that abuts Interstate 70. The company passed out maps compiled by Colorado Parks and Wildlife showing 107 structures – many of them homes built decades ago – in the area defined as bighorn sheep winter range.
“So why are all these luxury homes OK but the affordable housing is not?” Howard asked the council.
Merv Lapin, who has lived in Vail since 1966 and served eight years on the town council, said attainable housing has been an issue in the town since the late 1960s, with demand always outstripping supply.
Lapin suggested the town hire an eminent domain firm to pursue the condemnation of the East Vail parcel and another 10 acres near Lionshead Village where the company a decade ago proposed a village development with luxury homes.
“Vail Resorts and other large, profitable organizations have taken advantage of subsidized housing the town has built over the years,” Lapin said. “Vail Resorts could easily donate its land and do the right thing, either to a conservation fund or the town.”
Several residents spoke in support of the town’s condemnation of the property, voicing support for affordable housing, but not at the expense of wildlife.
Vail ski area spokesman John Plack said the company is undaunted by the first step toward condemnation. There’s still a couple weeks until the next council meeting to change the mind of at least once council member.
“We are optimistic that the town council did not take it to a vote today and and we are confident that affordable housing not only is much needed, but that we will have affordable housing in East Vail on schedule with this project,” Plack said.