Eagle County balks at fourth mega-resort
EAGLE, Colo. - Thirteen years ago, Fred Kummer's dream of building a mega-ski resort outside this quiet Colorado town seemed like money in the bank.
The wealthy developer had won the approval of Eagle County and the Forest Service, despite the opposition of a pesky group of locals. The construction industry was poised to throw up condos, hotels, convention centers, golf courses and expensive second homes along narrow Brush Creek, a valley south of Interstate 70 where cattle still outnumbered people.
Eagle County, of course, had no shortage of resorts. Vail, Arrowhead and Beaver Creek resorts and their suburbs already cascaded down the I-70 corridor, making up the largest ski complex in North America. Who could resist another 9,000 skiers and the heady ski boom economy they would fuel?
Yet on a snowy January morning in 1996, Eagle's two-block downtown shows no evidence of Kummer's huge resort - no Jeep Cherokees or Land Rovers with skis strapped on top, no crowds of snowboarders or skiers. Main street is downright quiet, with only a few cars and pickup trucks stopped outside the local cafe. A new subdivision sprawls on the south side of town, but beyond the houses, cows still munch on hay along Brush Creek.
In fact, the only sign of the Adam's Rib resort is a storefront with a red awning that reads, "Adam's Rib Recreation Area." There, Kummer, a 67-year-old builder of hotels and hospitals, is meeting with a team of consultants. He's trying to figure out a way to resuscitate his resort. Again.
A few weeks earlier the county commissioners, a body that has traditionally served as a booster of the ski industry, unanimously rejected Kummer's latest scheme: a 27-hole golf course and 1,000-home subdivision six miles below the proposed ski resort. The golf complex and the ski resort, part of which would be built on national forest land, have long been joined at the hip. Kummer says he needs both to make his project viable. That's why the commissioners' vote - the first real test of the project's viability since 1982 - gave hope to long-time opponents.
"I'm feeling more confident now that we can defeat this whole thing," says Eagle resident Susie Kincade, a former public relations director for the Vail ski area who now uses her skills on behalf of the Concerned Citizens for Eagle County. "If we can control growth along Brush Creek, it will send a signal to the real estate brokers and developers that not everything here is for sale. Enough is enough."
Enough may never be enough for Fred Kummer. The owner of the Adam's Mark hotels has already thrown $30 million and 25 years into the project. Talking by phone from the St. Louis, Mo., headquarters of his company, Hospital Building Equipment, he insists he's more optimistic than ever about Adam's Rib despite the county's "shortsighted attack." He plans to show commissioners a new set of plans this summer.
Says Kummer, "The only downside is that I started this project as a young man, and I won't be quite so young when it gets finished."
Not a process man
Why has Adam's Rib languished for a quarter of a century while neighboring ski resorts flourished during a period of record growth? Why did the county commissioners shoot down something their predecessors would have welcomed with open arms? And will Fred Kummer ever give up?
Some of the answers can be found in the rapid growth that has steamrollered this area over the past decade. Dependence on a resort-based economy has made the county far different from the one Kummer encountered in the late 1960s, when the Forest Service - which surveys mountains for skiing the way it surveys trees for cutting - first identified Adam and Eve Mountains as excellent prospects for a downhill ski resort. And local opposition - largely in the form of the 100-member Concerned Citizens for Eagle County - has been far more sophisticated and persistent than anyone ever imagined.
Still, some say Kummer has been his own worst enemy. His reputation as a deal-maker with little patience for public process is widespread. On more than one occasion, he has exasperated public officials with midstream changes to his project.
Take, for example, Kummer's interaction with the Army Corps of Engineers over a wetlands permit he needs for his ski village. When it became apparent in 1993 that the Corps was about to turn down his application because it would destroy more than 80 acres of wetlands, Kummer offered several times to change the amount of wetlands affected, each time lowering the number of acres as if he were working a customer at a flea market. The Corps turned him down anyway and told him to find another solution.
The same thing happened when the county rejected his golf course complex in December. The proposal called for 1,055 homes, far more than the 140 approved by the county in 1982. Following the 3-0 vote, Kummer told the commissioners he'd cut a deal on the density, reducing the number of units first to 800 and then, in a last ditch effort, to 400 units. The commissioners held firm, telling Kummer they needed to see his entire development plan before approving any one part.
The ever-changing nature of Adam's Rib has not earned Kummer many friends. "I don't know what his next plans are," says Keith Montag, the county's chief planner. "There has been very little communication between Adam's Rib and the county."
The Concerned Citizens are less diplomatic. "They try to get part of their project through one agency, and when they get turned down, they go to the other," says Luke Danielson, a Denver-based attorney who has done pro bono work for the Concerned Citizens for the past 15 years. "That's because they know their project won't make it by the regulations.
"An awful lot of people have succeeded in developing real estate in Colorado," says Danielson. "Does this developer just have bad luck or could it be that the plan is no good?"
Kummer calls the public process "a pain in the ass. But I'm sure our project is better now because of it," he says. "Those environmental laws are out there for a reason, right?"
A growing problem
In the early 1970s, when Kummer began buying the first of 7,000 acres he would eventually acquire along Brush Creek, the Vail Ski Area, which today serves as many as 18,000 skiers a day, was still the only game in town. The 1970s saw the approval of Arrowhead ski resort and the skyrocketing popularity of the sport itself as the baby boomers came of age. Interstate 70, which bisects and in many ways defines the county, became the main artery to the resorts, pumping in skiers from the Denver metro area, two-and-a-half hours away.
By the time Beaver Creek ski resort outside of Avon was approved in 1980, the second home and condominium market had overtaken skiing as the driving economic force in the county. Driving west from Vail to Avon today, the I-70 corridor has boomed into one giant suburb, replete with strip malls, fast-food joints and tracts of condominiums.
The numbers are startling. Residential units in Eagle County jumped from 11,000 in 1980 to 18,000 in 1995, while the population more than doubled, from 13,320 to nearly 28,000. By the year 2010, it is expected to surge to 40,000.
Much of the growth is occurring down valley from Vail, where there is virtually no open land left. Last summer, a real estate sale held at the site of the proposed Bachelor's Gulch ski expansion, part of Beaver Creek, brought $42 million in just three hours. And those were just lots.
Eagle County's leaders had already laid the foundation for future growth by approving a load of subdivisions in the 1970s and 1980s. Rancher Bud Grant, a county commissioner for the past decade, says the county's population will double if those projects are built.
"If we approve Adam's Rib it could double again. We're already having a hard time keeping up with our roads, water and sewer," says the commissioner.
Eagle County residents increasingly view Adam's Rib as a massive headache. The latest incarnation of the project would have drawn an estimated 17,000 new people into the Eagle area during the winter and around 15,000 in the summer.
What about the workers?
The project would also generate 4,300 permanent jobs; but where that number would have inspired county commissioners to turn cartwheels in years past, today it weighs like a millstone. Where would all these people live - most of whom would earn less than $25,000 a year flipping burgers and changing beds?
Eagle is now home to some of the workers who service the upvalley resorts, but even here, housing prices have climbed beyond the reach of many. Adam's Rib would only make things worse, and this bothers Grant's fellow commissioner, James Johnson.
"When Adam's Rib was first brought before the county, it hadn't experienced a major resort yet," says Johnson. "Now we see some of the impacts of resort communities. We see that it creates the same types of jobs. We see that second-home owners are pushing up the price of housing and pushing out families. They're tearing the very fabric communities are made from."
If there's a mold of a rural, "good old boy" Colorado county commissioner, Johnson doesn't fit it. He's African American, a "middle timer" who has lived in Vail for 15 years. When he first came to the area he cleaned rooms at the Marriott Hotel.
"We need to make it possible for people to earn a living without having to work two jobs," he says.
Adam's Rib officials now emphasize how their project will help the county deal with its affordable housing problem. "We want a good, stabilized, qualified, dignified workforce. We're not a developer - we're an operator," says Adam's Rib spokesman Charlie Wick. "We're not going to just develop and move out. Whatever we build has to work."
Wick says employees would be able to find housing at the golf course development - though the lowest-price condos there would go for $150,000 - and at the Adam's Rib Ranch development near town, where some houses would sell for as little as $110,000.
But the county planning staff doubts that workers will be able to afford fairway villas. And, even assuming that every worker household will have 2.3 breadwinners, the consultant's report estimates an 850 unit employee housing shortfall; over half of Adam's Rib's 4,300 employees would have to find housing elsewhere. That would push some into Glenwood Springs, 30 miles away, which is already providing housing for people who work in Aspen (see sidebar linked at end of article).
At public hearings last year, the commissioners got an earful about squalid employee living conditions, horrendous commutes and the blight of unfettered development. Some of the comments came from well-to-do Vail residents, who recognized that Adam's Rib was no longer just that "down-valley problem," says Allen Best, managing editor of the Vail Valley Times.
The result: the commissioners adopted a new county masterplan addressing affordable housing as well as open space protection. They also adopted a more focused "subplan" for Eagle and the Brush Creek valley, which calls for development to proceed outward from the town center and for the maintenance of a "small town, not resort atmosphere." It was these plans the county commissioners relied on to reject Kummer's golf course plan. The golf course complex was too dense, they said, and would serve as a de facto town center five miles outside of Eagle, precisely what the plans were trying to prevent.
Charlie Wick says the county would be much better off with Adam's Rib than with the 35-acre ranchettes that would result from the project's failure.
"By turning us down, the county took away its ability to master-plan for 7,000 acres, protect open spaces, have the developer pay for infrastructure costs and ensure environmental compatibility," says Wick. "The county can achieve more working with one landowner and one master plan than it can working with 60 or 70 landowners and multiple subdivisions."
That doesn't bother resort opponents. "Great, give us the 35-acre ranchettes, we're ready to deal with that," says Susie Kincade, who was one of the master subplan architects. Much of the private land not owned by Kummer is already cut up into ranchette-sized lots. The new plan calls for the use of a wide variety of planning tools - from incentives to cluster development to transferable development rights "intended to preserve open spaces. Says Kincade, "What we don't need is another resort and everything that comes with it."
But even larger forces may now be conspiring against Adam's Rib. The number of Colorado skiers levelled off at nearly 11 million in 1995, and some experts predict it will stay there, now that many baby boomers have aged beyond their downhill days (see accompanying story).
And the Forest Service, which has approved virtually every new ski resort with adequate financial backing, now says it favors expanding existing areas, instead of permitting new ones.
Communities that sue together stay together
Archaeologist and Concerned Citizens member Mike Metcalf slides into his Ford Explorer and heads for the narrow Brush Creek valley, where Kummer wants to spread his resort.
"I think it is inevitable there will be some growth here," says Metcalf, "but the ski resort would be the death knell for a unique valley. Imagine what 9,000 skiers and 20,000 new beds would do to this place."
Metcalf says he once worked for Fred Kummer, exploring the proposed ski resort site at the top of the valley for evidence of prehistoric human use. He found fire rings and points indicating that the upper meadows of Brush Creek were used by the Ute tribe and its ancestors as far back as 5,000 years ago.
Though the archaeological resources impress Metcalf, he values Brush Creek for other reasons too. Like the other hard-core members of Concerned Citizens for Eagle County, he frequently hunts, hikes and cross-country skis on this quiet part of the White River National Forest. Adam's Rib, he says, would put thousands of cars and people into the backcountry all year long.
The Concerned Citizens sounded the warning bell about Adam's Rib long before it became a trendy thing to do. The group has bird-dogged Fred Kummer's project from day one; without their lawsuits and public education efforts, there might not be anything worth saving up Brush Creek today.
Before heading up Brush Creek, Metcalf stops at a 1960s-era brick house on the edge of a new subdivision and picks up Gene Lorig. The 69-year-old attorney, who currently serves as president for the Concerned Citizens for Eagle County, slides into the back seat.
As houses give way to hay meadows and cow pastures, the two men point out the land where Fred Kummer hopes to build golf courses and houses. They name the other landowners in the valley, and tell of their past encounters with Adam's Rib - "Gene, remember that ranch manager Adam's Rib had back in the '70s" - going through a routine that has obviously become ritual over the past two decades.
Lorig talks of his history in the area.
"I'm a third-generation Coloradan," he says in his big voice. "I've lived here since 1961."
"Gene's daughter babysat our kids," says Metcalf.
"Yeah, but your wife babysat ours," Lorig booms back with a laugh.
Eagle still feels like a community, and no doubt the ever-present threat of Adam's Rib has woven parts of it even more tightly. The Lorigs and the Metcalfs are co-plaintiffs on a lawsuit challenging the county for its repeated extensions of the 1982 Adam's Rib sketch plan.
We cross into national forest lands. Aspen trees crowd the narrow valley. Metcalf tells me that on one night in February, a group of people will materialize up here for a hell-bent-for-leather sled ride down the forest road.
"No one announces when it will take place. People just know," he says. "Afterwards we have a big bonfire to warm everybody up."
The sled ride, the hay meadows, the community of Eagle - they may all fade into history, whether or not Adam's Rib is built. But these gritty opponents remain hopeful.
They also know that Fred Kummer will be back. No one, not even the Forest Service, which is preparing an environmental impact statement for Kummer, knows exactly what his next plan will look like. He says it will be based on the approved plans of 1982.
That uncertainty has made life difficult for John Borton, the Forest Service's EIS coordinator. "I've always wanted a job that keeps me on my toes, and this one certainly has," he says wryly. "What are we analyzing? That's a very evolving process." The document may be out in draft form this fall, he says. "But that's very tentative." The county, meanwhile, awaits Kummer's reworked golf course plan, as well as the reworked ski village.
Kummer has proposed moving the ski village entirely out of the wetlands up onto a rocky ridge known as Adam's Rib. To make the terrain buildable, however, he wants to raze some 90 feet of the rib.
The irony is not lost on Luke Danielson.
"(Knocking off the rib) would be in the fine American tradition of destroying whatever physical feature a place is named after," he says.
A way out
At least one person is thinking of a way to let Adam's Rib die with dignity. Photographer John Fielder, who first took pictures of Brush Creek 25 years ago, believes Fred Kummer could get a decent financial return on his investment and end up a minor hero for saving one of Colorado's most beautiful valleys - if the right deal came along.
That hasn't been a realistic option in the past, he says, but the state now has Go Colorado funds at its disposal, some $20 million a year from gambling proceeds earmarked for open space and parks.
Fielder, who helps distribute this money as a Go Colorado board member, says a consortium of interests could come up with a creative plan possibly involving land swaps and outright purchase of critical lands.
Such a plan could help the Eagle County commissioners continue to resist the project, says Fielder, because they would know Kummer has another financially viable option other than the resort.
Says Fielder, "The time is ripe."
Paul Larmer is HCN's associate editor.
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