The largest resort operator in North America is going to war with its namesake town.
The Vail town council late Tuesday voted to condemn a parcel where Vail Resorts plans to spend $17 million to build affordable housing for 165 workers. Dozens of Vail Resorts executives, employees and managers crammed into the council’s chambers Tuesday night as the council heard passionate support for both housing and wildlife. Ultimately the council voted 4-3 to approve a resolution that gives the town the ability to seize ownership of the 23-acre parcel and prevent any development as a way to protect a bighorn herd that winters in the south-facing aspen groves along Interstate 70.
“I’m disappointed you’ve been backed into a corner and have to consider this resolution tonight,” said Terry Meyers, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “Please make the decision to protect the bighorn sheep herd and move forward to find other options for affordable housing in the Vail Valley. The sheep have to have this. They can’t go anywhere else.”
The council fielded more than 100 emailed statements — 200 pages in the council’s meeting packet — from local business owners and residents in the last two weeks, with about 80 of them urging council members to not condemn the parcel and support housing. The council counted about 20 emails supporting the condemnation.
Former Vail council member Jenn Bruno, who voted to approve the Vail Resorts housing project in 2019, questioned the council’s push to condemn the land for “the health, safety and welfare of the public.”
“What public is being referenced? It’s not the workers,” Bruno said. “We are in a housing crisis that is affecting not only our guest experiences but the very make-up of our community. If we are really thinking about the welfare and safety of our neighbors, we would want to make sure they have homes.”
Chris Romer, the head of the 920-business Vail Valley Partnership, focused on the role of government, saying eminent domain and government seizure of private property is an “extreme action.”
“The idea of what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine is bad government policy,” Romer said.
Frances Hartogh, a Vail resident and volunteer wilderness ranger for the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance, said she has seen the detrimental impacts of crowds, dogs and climate on the valley’s wildlife.
“It’s time to stop violating wildlife in the name of our sport,” Hartogh said.
Robyn Smith, a resident and business owner in West Vail, presented a map she assembled from town data showing 17 short-term rental homes, two luxury homes under construction, two trailheads, the town’s public works building and Vail Mountain School among more than 100 buildings in the bighorn herd’s winter range on the south-facing slopes in East Vail.
Smith said condemning the affordable housing project while allowing all the other activity in the winter habitat “is a textbook example of redlining.”
“The consequences of this action are clearly discriminatory,” said Smith, adding that state wildlife officials are in charge of protecting bighorn “but you are uniquely responsible for us.”
Vail Resorts also brought a map showing more than 100 homes in the habitat, many of the homes awash in red dots indicating the homes owned by people who have spoken publicly against the affordable housing project near their neighborhood.
Many residents urged Vail Resorts to direct employee housing to its Ever Vail parcel in the valley. The company years ago proposed a new chairlift and luxury village on the land adjacent to the ski area. John Dawsey, the vice president of hospitality for Vail Resorts, said Ever Vail is three to five years away from approval.
“And we need this housing now,” Dawsey said. “One gets us housing now and one will get us housing in the future and we need both.”
Vail Resorts, and most mountain businesses, are enduring a painful shortage of workers caused by a lack of affordable housing. The ski area operator struggled this season to open lifts and terrain at understaffed resorts. Bill Rock, the chief operating officer of Vail Resort’s Rocky Mountain Region, said condemnation “will be detrimental to the health and sustainability of the community … it will have an adverse impact for decades.”
Rock also said the company “will vigorously defend our right to go forward with this project.”
After hearing three hours of testimony, all of the council members lambasted Vail Resorts for difficult negotiations in recent years as the town pushed the company to pursue different locations for housing in the valley. They all noted the town’s recent investment in an expansion of employee apartments and the new 70-unit Residences at Main Vail project, which Vail Resorts is not supporting.
“We have tried to collaborate with Vail Resorts for the last two years. It’s been a very dismal process,” said councilwoman Jen Mason, who said eminent domain could help improve negotiations with Vail Resorts. “I do not want to condemn this land but for two years they would not even respond to us.”
Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid, who grew up in Vail, defended the council’s support for affordable housing.
“It’s been a struggle to stay here and live here. It’s been very sad to see what was once a very vibrant community implode on itself over the lack of affordable housing,” said Langmaid, adding that she grew up watching the bighorn herd in East Vail. “I’m not willing to risk their demise because I do believe there is a better solution out there. I know we can do this. This resolution does not preclude us from finding a solution. We don’t have to use eminent domain. We are just saying we can do it.”