Telluride tackles ski town sprawl

It's big money vs. big money in Colorado development battle

  • Chain of demonstrators stretches from Telluride through the valley

    Hal Clifford
 

TELLURIDE, Colo. - Elected officials in this mountain town are trying to stop sprawl, and they've put their feet down hard - right on the instep of a developer who wants to triple the size of Telluride's built-up area.

It's an extraordinary standoff: Telluride, a town of 2,000 with an annual budget of $15 million, wants to condemn 857 acres of wetlands whose estimated worth ranges between $18 million and $60 million.

The land in question, known as the Valley Floor, borders the sole entrance into the historic resort town. The meadows are hemmed in by nearly vertical walls of sandstone that rise up to 13,000-foot peaks; the scenic drive into the canyon is part of Telluride's marketable charm. Supporters of the condemnation plan say that charm is endangered by a proposed golf course, luxury hotel, trophy homes, affordable housing and a commercial center.

"We've got enough suburbia," says Michael Zivian, owner of two Telluride hotels. "Telluride's a special place. If it goes the way Aspen did, what's the point? We're no different than anyone else then."

Condemnation is most often used to make room for highways and power lines. In this case, Telluride officials say they can condemn and buy the Valley Floor to preserve valuable open space - even though the land isn't within town limits. It's an all-or-nothing strategy, but most residents say it's worth the risk.

"I know that developing the Valley Floor will do nothing to help my business or our economic wholeness," says Jerry Greene, a former town council member and owner of a local bakery and a bar. "If we fight to save the Valley Floor, we may lose. But if we don't fight, we will all surely lose."

A tale of two towns

Telluride, a former mining town of about 400 acres, has largely avoided resort sprawl. When Telluride's ski area opened in 1974, developers broke ground for a separate resort village at the base of the lifts, behind a 9,000-foot ridge and hidden from Telluride proper. The resulting Mountain Village was incorporated in 1995 and is rapidly developing into a modern resort of oversized log homes and condominium hotels. But it has allowed the region to accommodate tourists and wealthy visitors without significantly marring Telluride's Victorian-era feel.

In 1983, San Diego industrialist James Neal Blue purchased the Valley Floor property from the Idarado Corporation, which closed the region's last gold mine in 1978. Blue, who owns the land through the San Miguel Valley Corporation, paid about $7 million for the property - and kept it undeveloped for 17 years. The only signs of Blue's presence were a few Holstein cows, which grazed on the land each summer.

The land is far from pristine. An old railroad grade crosses it, the stretch of San Miguel River that runs through the property has been channelized, the Holsteins overgraze the meadows and century-old mine waste covers several acres. But over the years, locals have grown accustomed to the sight of the open wetlands, which stretch for three miles along the approach to Telluride.

By right, the developer could chop the land - now part of unincorporated San Miguel County - into two dozen 35-acre homesites without government approval. At current market prices, the subdivision might gross $62 million. Throughout the 1990s, town officials tried to convince Blue to annex the land to Telluride and agree to stricter controls on the development.

Blue's San Miguel Valley Corporation was initially supportive of the idea, but Telluride officials ultimately asked too much, says representative Johnny Stevens. In the last year, he says, the town demanded a 30 percent reduction in commercial density, and the reserving of 76 percent of all housing for employees.

So in June, the corporation gave up on Telluride and said it would seek to annex its land to Mountain Village, which lies a half-mile from the bulk of the property. Corporation officials hoped the resort would give the development proposal a friendlier hearing.

Less is more

Telluride residents reacted angrily to the announcement. For many of them, the idea of Mountain Village controlling Telluride's entrance is as galling as the proposed development itself.

"The Village is a 5-year-old town. We're a 130-year-old town," says Telluride Town Manager Peggy Curran. "For them to reach down over the mountain to control our fate has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way."

In June, a unanimous town council began legal proceedings for condemnation. The proceedings may take up to two years, and the cost to the town could be in the "hundreds of thousands," Curran says. If the condemnation is authorized, a court will set the purchase price, and the town will have to pony up or walk away. Telluride already has a substantial war chest for open-space purchases, but officials would need voter approval for a tax increase. And as council member Dave Johnson said at a recent meeting, the town would also need donations from wealthy residents - the people who can write checks "with seven zeroes."

It's big money vs. big money, and the approach doesn't appeal to everyone: One downtown business has hung up a large sign reading "Save The Rich, Condemn The Floor." But most in Telluride seem willing to help with the effort. On July 3, 750 locals and visitors demonstrated their support for the condemnation by forming a human chain from the center of town to the Valley Floor property.

"There was everybody," says Joan May, the executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a local environmental group. "The mayor and the county commissioners and people running for office, people who wash dishes for a living and live in tents and people who live in mansions and are only here a couple times a year. Pretty much everyone in the community came out for it, and it was a very, very positive event."

San Miguel Valley Corporation spokesman Stevens says he isn't surprised by the condemnation effort, but says his corporation's proposal already addresses many of the town's concerns. "It's not our plan. It's a reiteration of the community plan," he says of the proposed development. "My strategy was always "Let's let the community lead the plan." "

New housing for as many as 18,000 people has already been approved in the Telluride region, says Stevens, but only half of that housing has been built so far. Without residential and commercial developments like the Valley Floor, he says, the new construction will be a big strain on the town of Telluride. "Where are the solutions in the next 50 percent of the development?" he asks. "Where's the parking, schooling, employee housing? My biggest fear is we're not reckoning with what's coming down the pike."

Hal Clifford lives in Telluride, Colorado. He is a regular contributor to High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • The town of Telluride, 970/728-3071;
  • San Miguel Valley Corp., 970/728-3826;
  • Joan May, Sheep Mountain Alliance, 970/728-3729.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Hal Clifford