Colorado mountain town raises millions to save meadow

  Residents of Telluride, Colo., joined in a chorus of “This Land is Your Land” Wednesday afternoon May 9, just before Mayor John Pryor announced the mountain resort town had raised enough money to save more than 550 acres of natural area near its entrance.

“We have fought the good fight. We have prevailed,” declared Pryor during a telephone press conference.

As of May 8, the town was still a million and a half short of the $50 million needed, but a last-minute donation of over $2 million by Los Angeles film director Tom Shadyac, “really knocked it out of the park,” said Pryor.

The fight over Telluride’s valley began more than a decade ago, when landowner James Neal Blue sought to develop it into new residential and commercial properties (see our story Telluride tackles ski town sprawl). The town lies boxed into a narrow mountain corridor with little room for expansion, except for the valley floor at the town’s entrance.

But residents would rather the land remained wild. The valley includes a section of the winding San Miguel River, is frequented by elk and other wildlife, and showcases a blanket of bright yellow wildflowers in the spring.

Despite numerous proposals and compromises by Blue, residents repeatedly voted against building plans, and instead sought to purchase the land through condemnation. The land was originally appraised at $26 million, but Blue disputed the appraisal and a Delta, Colo., jury awarded nearly double the original assessment.

The town had an uphill battle, for it had only $25.5 million available at the time of the ruling last February. The Valley Floor Preservation Partners upped their campaign in an ambitious effort to raise an additional $25 million by the May 10 deadline.

Residents and others rose to the task: More than 1,700 contributed money. Some put second mortgages on their homes; others sold personal belongings, and the town established a local “wishing well” that itself raised over $1 million. Thanks to efforts large and small, Telluride not only met, but surpassed the price tag, raising $50.87 million.

“We did this together,” said Todd Creel, a board member of the Valley Floor Preservation Partners. “This isn’t about politics, profit, or even about this generation. This is a story about place and stewardship.”

Telluride’s struggle for the land is not over, however. The town still has to win an appeal in order to condemn the land.

Blue says he’s fighting for principle, not money.

His attorney, Thomas Ragonetti of the Otten, Johnson, Robinson, Neff and Ragonetti law firm in Denver, describes Neal as a “man of principle” who resents people “using the power of government to feather the nest of a rich community.”

The case will go before the Colorado Supreme Court sometime during the fall or early winter, and the town hopes to have a decision by next spring.

In the meantime, residents of Telluride have reason to celebrate.

“This is one of those incredible occasions where a small group came together” and succeeded “against all odds,” said eBay CEO and donor Meg Whitman. “This really is historic; you don’t see communities come together like this that often.”