Just above Interstate 70, a narrow strip of sagebrush-covered hills are home to a Colorado treasure: the bighorn sheep that graze along this rugged, steep terrain. The land could also be used to help solve a chronic problem nearby: a shortage of affordable housing that threatens the future of the famous resort town of Vail.
Each winter, the hamlet becomes an international ski destination, offering pleasure, gastronomy, fashion and sport to thousands of visitors. But like hundreds of communities across the United States, the influx of visitors and newcomers — from those coming for a few days to others buying second homes — has made it nearly impossible to find housing for workers. necessary to sustain tourism in the region.
“Someone explained to me that housing should be like infrastructure,” says Jenn Bruno, owner of a boutique in the heart of Vail. “We have to treat it like roads and bridges. And we have to make sure we have that, especially in a community like Vail, where we have an industry, and that’s tourism.
Just weeks before this month’s season opener at the ski resort, Bruno’s only employee was a teenage girl who could cover a few hours a week when her schedule permitted. The restaurant across from his shop has been there, closed, for about two years now.
For more than six years, the owner of the hill in question, the publicly traded company Vail Resorts Inc., has been trying to build apartments to furnish about 160 of its workers on a property called Booth Heights. This housing would free up other apartments in town, which, in turn, would benefit a resort oasis awash with money and millionaires, but lacking adequate housing for the chefs, lift operators and cashiers who make the community vibrate. But environmental concerns and some longstanding skepticism of a global corporation running a multi-million dollar ski empire have created a saga filled with mistrust, legal filings and no solution. easily to a problem that everyone agrees will not go away.
“The housing challenge and how we approach it over the next 18 to 24 months will define what this community will look like in 20 to 30 years,” said Chris Romer, president of the county chamber of commerce version. of Eagle.
Vail Resorts has long wanted to build apartments on a five-acre corner of the 23-acre parcel at the low point of a bighorn sheep habitat that rises out of a rocky field just east of the I- 70.
Opponents of the construction, including Mayor Kim Langmaid, cite studies that show sheep naturally migrate to what would be the construction area in winter, when vegetation higher up is covered in snow. Last month, shortly after the first big snowfall of the season, five sheep were actually grazing near the future construction area.
“Some people say, ‘Well, they’ll just move out,'” Langmaid said. “But they can’t move anywhere else.”
Rising real estate prices and the Internet-driven vacation rental market have continually crowded out regular downtown workers with only 5,600 full-time residents. In nearby Eagle County, the median price of a single-family home hit $1.2 million last summer.
Proponents of the project say three acres of sheep habitat is a price to pay, especially since the city’s largest employer is willing to foot the bill and find solutions for the sheep.
“We need to mitigate these lands and make sure we’re helping the flock of sheep,” Bruno said. “But I also don’t understand why people aren’t upset that in a community as wealthy as ours, with so much to offer, that we have kids who sleep in their cars and then always help us out by getting up. every day and serving us.”
The 160 beds Vail Resort wants to add, at a proposed cost of $17 million, looked like a done deal when the project began. He thought he would offer relief to an area where the “fair rent” for a studio was recently calculated at $1,132 per month. The city council gave the green light to the project and even helped the station defend the construction in court against groups concerned about the impact the building would have on sheep.
Construction was almost ready to start, but the turnover of the city council, driven by elections focused on the housing shortage, brought the project to a standstill. Instead of working with Vail Resorts, the city council has changed and is now trying to condemn the property. He recently offered $12 million for the land.
Vail Resorts rejected the offer with a terse letter from Executive Vice President Bill Rock, who recalled that the project had initially “enjoyed broad support from the City of Vail and was received with considerable enthusiasm by staff at the city and its council”.
One of the board members is Pete Seibert Jr., the son of the ski resort’s co-founder. Seibert initially supported the project, but changed his mind and voted to condemn it, based, he said, on an analysis by a scientist who said the size of the habitat was appropriate for the number of sheep that live there.
“I think we’re going to look back, 40 or 50 years later, and be happy that we decided not to build there,” Seibert said of Booth Heights, which remains as it was. been for decades – untouched and peaceful except for the steady stream of 18-wheelers blazing past on the freeway below.
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