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A herd of bighorn sheep graze behind the erected fence near the Interstate 70 East Vail exit, Nov. 1, 2022. 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)

The Town of Vail will have to pay Vail Resorts $17.5 million to acquire a 23-acre parcel where the resort operator planned to build employee housing but the town wants to protect for wildlife. 

The decision from a valuation hearing sets up the final chapter of an 18-month fight between the town and the company. Vail Resorts in early 2022 announced plans to spend $17 million on apartments for 165 workers on a sliver of the East Vail parcel. The plan — which was approved in 2019 by a previous town council but was suspended by the company during the pandemic — would have left 17 acres of the land as habitat for bighorn sheep. Citing the need to protect critical winter habitat for the valley’s bighorn herd, the Vail council voted in April 2022 to condemn that land and take control of the parcel. 

The battle quickly became intractable as company workers pleaded for help with housing and wildlife advocates urged protection for animals. The town passed an emergency ordinance halting any work on the parcel. The company sued the town in Eagle County District Court. The town offered Vail Resorts $12 million for the land, using proceeds from the town’s overflowing Real Estate Transfer Tax Fund. The company refused, saying the fight was not about money, it was about housing

In June, an Eagle County District Court judge sided with Vail, granting the town immediate possession of the land. Judge Paul Dunkelman said in his ruling that both the town and the company, not the courts, have an obligation to balance the critical needs of housing and wildlife. 

“Instead of meeting their responsibilities and addressing workforce housing and protection of wildlife habitat in a responsible fashion, the town and Vail Resorts have chosen to defer this decision to the court,” Dunkelman wrote. “While this is their right, it is also a failure on the part of the town and Vail Resorts.”

A three-member commission tasked with determining the value of the parcel reached its decision earlier this week following a valuation hearing. Vail Resorts argued the land was worth $23 million. The town said it was worth somewhere between $11 million and $13 million.

The commission concluded the market value of the parcel is $17.5 million. The Vail Town Council will have to vote to approve the payment to the resort operator. 

Vail Resorts, in an emailed statement to The Sun, said the decision to condemn and pay is not good for the community. The company is asking the council to stop the condemnation, let the company build and use the $17.5 million for more affordable housing.  After 18 months of fighting, that is not likely.

“Regardless of the town’s actions, we are fully committed to investing in affordable housing for our employees, including reinvesting the condemnation money in our resort communities into affordable housing projects where it will have the biggest and most timely impact,” reads the statement. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...