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A herd of bighorn sheep graze behind the erected fence near the Interstate 70 East Vail exit, Nov. 1, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Town of Vail council on Tuesday voted to approve a $17.5 million deal to acquire a 23-acre parcel in East Vail from ski area operator Vail Resorts, blocking the company’s plan to build housing for 165 employees on the site. The 5-2 vote ended a four-year fight that pitted bighorn sheep against housing. 

Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid said the past several years has been “a very tough time and it really divided our community.”

“But the sheep sustaining there is more important than my life right now,” she said. “I hope we will, and I know we will, get past this.”

The town’s acquisition includes $12 million from its overflowing Real Estate Transfer Tax Fund and $5.5 million from the town’s general fund. (That leaves $48.2 million in the town’s general fund, which is 84% of the town’s annual revenues in a normal year. Town staff warned the council that there may be a couple years of belt-tightening ahead to get back to a more bountiful surplus.)

The acquisition will protect the acres as winter habitat for the valley’s herd of bighorn sheep. The town has partnered with the Montana-based nonprofit Wild Sheep Foundation to handle donations to help offset the cost of the acquisition. The bighorn protection campaign expects to raise $3 million and has collected more than $900,000 from more than 525 donors in the past 10 days to help the town offset the cost of the parcel. 

Last month a three-member panel of real estate experts valued the 23 acres at $17.5 million, with 18 acres designated as open space worth $1 million and the 5 acres identified by the town for housing worth $16.5 million. 

The council vote Tuesday ended a divisive process that began in 2016 when Vail Resorts discovered it owned the parcel known as Booth Heights. The town had identified the parcel in 1994 for open space protection. The company paid back taxes for the property and the town in 2017 approved a plan for housing and conservation. In 2019 the town approved construction of 61 units, including 49 deed-restricted apartments for local workers.

A new council in 2020 considered development on Booth Heights to be a threat to the valley’s bighorn herd and urged Vail Resorts to consider other locations. Vail Resorts slowed its plans for Booth Heights as the company navigated challenges during the pandemic. In early 2022 the town offered to buy the land for $7.8 million but Vail Resorts declined. In May 2022 the town authorized condemnation of the parcel to preserve it as open space for wildlife habitat. 

A month later the town froze all permits for construction on the parcel and the company sued the town. The town in late 2022 offered Vail Resorts $12 million for the parcel and again the company declined.  

In June, an Eagle County District Court judge ruled the town could take possession of the Booth Heights parcel and denied Vail Resorts’ claim that the town had improperly condemned the land. The two sides continued to discuss new locations and how the company might control some of the 550 new deed-restricted units opening in three town-controlled housing projects in the valley. 

Vail Resorts argued during the valuation hearing that the parcel was worth $23 million. The town  argued it was worth $11 million to $13 million. 

The vote Tuesday to approve $17.5 million for the parcel was a final step, following years of monthly meetings and hundreds of comments from residents. Tuesday’s meeting included a final round of passionate words from supporters and a few opponents of the plan to protect sheep habitat and pay Vail Resorts. In the couple weeks since the town announced the valuation and plan to purchase Booth Heights, the council has received several hundred emails in support of the acquisition and about 20 emails opposing the plan. 

First-term councilman Barry Davis said many opponents of this plan have stopped fighting. They feel the process has been flawed “and they feel disenfranchised,” he said. Davis said there was not enough discussion about how the jump from $12 million to $17.5 million might impact the town’s budget and projects going forward, noting that he would not support the plan. Councilman Travis Coggin also voted in opposition to the acquisition. 

Vail Resorts up to Tuesday was pushing the council to change course and allow the company to build housing on the parcel. The council weighed an option to abandon the condemnation process but there was little consideration of that 180-degree change in direction. 

Vail Resorts, in a statement last month, said it would direct the payment from the town toward housing near its resorts. 

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy.