Wetlands protection aids resort renovation

Photo by Preston Utley/Vail Daily
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The South Game Creek Exchange will allow Vail Resorts to develop at the base of the Vista Bahn, and in exchange, the U.S. Forest Service will receive wetlands in Eagle and land north of Minturn.
Preston Utley/Vail Daily

Cliff Thompson
April 2, 2005

VAIL -The U.S. Forest Service wants to proceed with a land swap that will end up protecting a pristine wetlands south of Eagle and will allow Vail's $75 million Front Door project to move ahead.

The Forest Service Tuesday released an environmental assessment of the land exchange that will see the agency give up 5.13 acres of public land slopeside to Vail's Bridge Street that Vail Resorts wants for a new entry point to the mountain. In exchange, the ski company will give up 475 acres it owns at Vassar Meadows south of Eagle and 136 acres it owns north of Minturn.

The swap, known officially as the South Game Creek Exchange, could be completed by early summer Forest Service officials said.

The exchange has been widely lauded because it protects Vassar Meadows and its huge, water-purifying wetlands near Yeoman Park and provides protection to the land near Game Creek north of Minturn. Both parcels contain valuable wildlife habitat.

The Vail Mountain parcel is being used for skiing and resort-related activities by Vail Resorts under a special-use permit.

Photo by Preston Utley/Vail Daily
The land swap between Vail Resorts and the U.S. Forest Service will allow Vail Resorts to build a new entry point at the base of Vail Mountain near the Vista Bahn.
Preston Utley/Vail Daily

A land swap works like a lunchroom sandwich swap - each party has something the other one wants. In this case Vail Resorts wants developable land at the base of Vail Mountain in exchange for some prime wildlands that can be protected from development by the Forest Service.

But unlike a sandwich swap, government regulations require parcels of land being exchanged be of equal value. "Getting Vassar Meadows into public ownership is a major plus," said Rocky Smith of the environmental group, Colorado Wild. "The land near Game Creek is valuable, too."

Badminton, anyone?

Vassar Meadows has been a badminton birdie in land-trade game that started not too long after Fred Kummer proposed building a Beaver Creek-sized ski resort south of Eagle more than 30 years ago.

Kummer's development was heavily contested by the town of Eagle and conservation groups and his plans dissolved in the mid-1990s. The land around and including Vassar Meadows was acquired on an interim basis by the Boulder-based Conservation Fund to be used for other land swaps.

One of those that failed involved a 480-acre parcel of land between Singletree and Avon the Forest Service wanted to shed in return for Vassar Meadows. Vail Resorts was willing to purchase the land and donate 440 acres to the Eagle Valley Land Trust, while keeping 40 acres to develop into affordable housing.

The company reversed course when faced with a combination of a challenging post-Sept. 11 business environment, a lack of access to the property and a glut of employee housing. The swap fizzled.

In December the Vassar Meadows parcel was acquired by Vail Resorts from the Conservation Trust for $4.7 million. The trust had acquired 1,780 acres from Kummer's Adam's Rib. It sold about 1,275 acres to a consortium of entities that gave the land to the Colorado State Parks to expand Sylvan Lakes State Park south of Eagle.

"This is a happy ending on the whole Adam's Rib saga," said Tom Macy of the Conservation Fund. "This deal exemplifies something we look for in all transactions where there needs to be a balance of economic reality, jobs and development with the environment."

Wait a minute ...

But not everyone supports the swap. Vail resident Luann Wells, who owns a condo at One Vail Place right next door to the Front Door project, is challenging the valuation of the property on Vail Mountain. She says it should be much higher than what the Forest Service is calculating.

An independent valuation paid for by Wells placed the value of the 5 acres at the base of Vail Mountain at just over $50 million.

Wells also is concerned about size of the development that Vail Resorts has planned for the Front Door, which includes 93,400 square feet of underground parking, a delivery truck distribution system similar to that in Beaver Creek, and a building for skiers to store and locker their gear.

The resort company also wants to build 13 two- and three-bedroom townhomes that will be timeshared. And the nearby Lodge at Vail will be expanding its building by 13,000 square feet for a spa.

"The theme of our concern is the massing of the facility," said Wells' spokesman, Paul Heeschen. "This facility is not in the best interests of the town of Vail and the Forest Service is transferring an asset that has greater value than the government is going to get for it."

The Conservation Fund's Macy said his organization still owns 117 acres of Vassar Meadows that could be added to the trade acreage if the valuation is unequal. The Forest Service regulations allow up to a 15 percent difference in valuation. The difference also can be made up in cash.

When the Forest Service is asked to consider a land swap, it studies environmental impacts ranging from the project's effects on threatened or endangered species to its potential harm to wetlands and floodplains. An assessment of the value of the property is being reviewed by the Forest Service.

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

Vail, Colorado