Vail Resorts buys Vassar Meadows

Cliff Thompson
August 17, 2004

As was hinted at in May, Vail Resorts on Tuesday purchased 357 acres of the pristine Vassar Meadows wetlands and uplands 20 miles south of Eagle for $4.7 million from the Conservation Fund.

This is a first step in transferring that property to the U.S. Forest Service and protecting it from development. Vassar Meadows and 136 more acres at South Game Creek will be exchanged with the Forest Service for 5 acres at the base of Vail Mountain for Vail's $75 million Front Door project remaking the area where Vail Village meets the ski mountain. The Vassar Meadows land will be included in the Sylvan Lakes State Park, 18 miles south of Eagle.

The remaining 118 acres of Vassar Meadows, valued at $1.6 million, will be held by the Boulder-based Conservation Trust until the Front Door land exchange is done sometime next year, at which time it will be donated to the Forest Service. Another, smaller Forest Service swap already in the works will protect the remaining 35 acres in Vassar Meadows in return for spinning off small parcels at the Sonnenalp Golf Course and at Beard Creek.

"It's a tremendous win for the community, said Cindy Cohagen, executive director of the Eagle Valley Land Trust. "It's a win for the Vail community as they look to develop the Front Door. It's certainly a win for the community who enjoys Vassar Meadows."

"The story here is you have a Colorado corporation working with a national conservation group and local land trust to protect one of the most pristine and important wetlands in Eagle County and the state," said Conservation Fund Director Tom Macy. "We applaud Vail Resorts for stepping forward to take on the financial responsibility for holding this valuable natural area until a land exchange with the Forest Service can be completed."

A marriage
The deal was negotiated at the top of the corporate ladder by Adam Aron, chief executive for Vail Resorts, and Chief Legal Counsel Martha Rehm.

"It's a marriage between social conscience and economic self-interest," Aron said.

The acquisition ends a four-year-long quest to protect the island of private land within the national forest south of Eagle that started when the Colorado State Parks attempted to purchase a large portion of the Adam's Rib Ranch for $14 million. The state was only able to come up with $10 million, while the Conservation Fund contributed $2 million, and Vail Resorts contributed $2 million to the fund in an interest-free 18-month-long loan for 1,736 acres at Vassar Meadows. In return, the Conservation Fund ended up acquiring Vail Resort's stake and held the entire 510 acres of Vassar Meadows for nearly three years.

Vail Resorts was eyeing 40 acres of Forest Service land in Avon for employee housing to be conveyed in a subsequent swap.

That land swap, which involved 480 acres owned by the Forest Service between Avon and Edwards, 510 acres of Vassar Meadows and other smaller parcels in Eagle and Pitkin counties, dissolved when the economy slowed, the company's profitability went south and the need for employee housing eased. The ski company also failed to receive the appropriate zoning on the parcel from the town of Avon, which was the sole clause in the contract that nixed the deal.

In the wake of the collapse of the Vassar-West Avon land exchange, during which Vail Resorts was criticized for dragging its feet on applying for zoning as the exchange contract required, the Forest Service said any future land exchanges would be heavily scrutinized.

In the meantime, the Conservation Fund was paying the interest on the money borrowed to hold the Vassar Meadows land. Macy said those costs were "edging north of $5 million."

"We needed some help, and they stepped forward," Macy said. "We are a non-profit. We're not the World Bank."

Front Door
Vail Resorts' Front Door project includes building a state-of-the-art skier services facility, landscaped plaza and a high-end slopeside time-share development. The company wants to begin construction in 2006, but first needs to receive approval of the town of Vail.

The land exchange involving South Game Creek and the Front Door is in its initial phases, said the Forest Service's Barry Sheakley.

"We know acquisition of Vassar is good. We believe acquisition of South Game Creek is good," he said. "We need to thoroughly study the impacts and effects of conveying the Front Door parcel."

Sheakley guessed that the environmental and other studies of the parcels in the exchange would be completed by next spring and that the land swap could follow shortly thereafter. He said the fact that the environmental studies have already been completed for Vassar will help move the overall exchange forward.

"I feel good that we're on a path that points toward the acquisition of Vassar Meadows by the Forest Service," he said. "For a several-year period, it didn't seem like our feet were moving. We were kind of marching in place."

Aron declined to provide figures on what the Front Door acreage might be worth, but some observers have placed its value at as much as $1.25 million an acre.

Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or
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