When COVID hit, a Colorado county kicked out second-home owners. They hit back.

How a group of nonresident homeowners tried to influence a rural Colorado election.

April 2020, and the novel coronavirus was spreading through the United States. As businesses closed and hospitals filled, Jim Moran found himself sheltering in place in Colorado, at his second home. His mansion has dark wood siding and a jutting patio, and it perches on a bluff above Crested Butte, a small snow globe of a town whose brightly painted cottages huddle at the base of mountains at the north end of the Gunnison Valley, a long thin basin high in the Rockies. Moran is from Dallas, Texas, where he managed private equity firms. From his back door, he can ski directly onto Crested Butte Mountain Resort, one of Colorado’s iconic ski areas. Moran speaks quickly and passionately and has swept-back silver hair. Housing prices in rural towns have surged since the pandemic as well-to-do people flee cities. Moran’s property, which he bought in 2013, has appreciated: Were he to list his house today, Zillow estimates the value at $4.3 million.

 

When COVID-19 came to the valley, the outbreak was so severe that the 17,400 residents of Gunnison County — which includes Crested Butte, the valley and a few outlying towns — faced one of the highest rates of cases per capita in the entire country. The county’s response was drastic: On April 3, it directed all visitors, tourists and part-time residents to leave, explicitly banning non-resident property owners, of which there are more than 4,000. The order, signed by the county’s public health director, cited the strain on local services: “Non-residents, regardless of whether they own a residence in Gunnison County, are imposing unnecessary burdens on health care, public services, first responders, food supplies and other essential services.” Violators could be fined up to $5,000 or jailed for up to 18 months.

Jim Moran’s second home in Crested Butte, Colorado, is a 7,000-plus-square-foot mansion.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Moran decided to stay put. He was upset, and he was far from alone. The next day, another Dallas resident with a home in the valley created a private Facebook group, eventually called GV2H & Friends Forum, for Gunnison Valley second-home owners in the area to gather and commiserate. The group swelled quickly to several hundred members. The order was divisive, one person wrote in a comment; it made non-residents feel like “outcasts,” wrote another. Many questioned the county’s wisdom in forcing them to travel during the pandemic. Then there were the legal issues. Moran told me that a key question was: “Can they just tell me I can’t use my property?”

“Can they just tell me I can’t use my property?”

Some Texans in the group — and there are many; the Gunnison Valley has been a popular vacation spot for oil-rich Texans since the early 1900s — turned to the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for help. On April 9, Paxton asked Gunnison County to reconsider, arguing that the Texans’ property rights were being violated. (Soon after, the Associated Press revealed that several of Paxton’s associates, including a college friend and high-dollar campaign donors, own houses in Crested Butte. This fall, seven of his senior staff accused him of taking bribes and using his office to favor political donors; the FBI is now investigating.)

Jim Moran, photographed last summer behind his house in Crested Butte overlooking the Crested Butte ski area.
William Woody
About a week after the order, nonresident homeowners received cards in the mail from the county. “While full-time residents of Gunnison County work to weather the coronavirus health crisis, non-resident homeowners are ordered to leave Gunnison County and not return until further notice,” the card said. Days later, the county backtracked a bit, saying that nonresident homeowners who had already quarantined in Gunnison could remain. Even so, many felt the county had gone too far. Something needed to be done.

Jim Moran had an idea. Two of the three seats on the board of county commissioners, the most powerful local governmental body, were up for re-election in November. That included Commissioner Jonathan Houck, who had endorsed the ban. Moran polled the GV2H & Friends Forum about creating a super PAC — an independent political spending organization that can receive unlimited donations but cannot donate directly to campaigns — to influence the county races. The response was enthusiastic. Moran and other second-home owners set out to find and support candidates more aligned with their interests, people who, if elected, would not ban them from their property. They thought they might win a majority on the commission. “There has never been a better opportunity for change,” Moran wrote on April 29, “and we intend to exploit that to the fullest extent possible.”

Residences outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. A 2014 economic report found that 52% of all residential units in Gunnison County had non-resident property owners.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

THE HILLS ABOVE CRESTED BUTTE, which are layered with gold, silver and other minerals, attracted prospectors in waves in the 1870s. Ranchers and homesteaders followed, motivating the forced removal of Ute tribal bands from land that they had called home for centuries. A coal mine opened in 1894 and sustained many livelihoods for the first half of the 20th century.

In the valley below, and south toward the town of Gunnison, most of the land was devoted to ranching. In the bottomlands near the Gunnison River, ranchers dug ditches and diverted water, irrigating meadows for cattle to graze. In 1901, they held the first annual Cattlemen’s Days Rodeo, which has taken place every year since, even during the pandemic. Agriculture endured as an economic force. The coal mine closed in the 1950s, a victim of shifting markets. People found new jobs with the Keystone lead-zinc mine on Mount Emmons, the “Red Lady,” a peak that looms above Crested Butte.

In the 1970s, Townes Van Zandt, the brilliant, troubled songwriter, would ride a horse named Amigo across the mountains from Aspen to Crested Butte, over Maroon Bells Pass. The town still had a dirt Main Street and several saloons where the musician played and drank and brawled late into the night. In the end, he was informally banned from town. It was hard to get kicked out of Crested Butte back then, “but Townes did,” as Steve Earle, Van Zandt’s friend and playing partner, recalled in an interview with Boulder Weekly.

A car with Texas license plates parked outside a luxury real estate office in Crested Butte.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The town that kicked out Van Zandt was changing. The first ski resorts opened in the 1960s, the Keystone Mine closed in 1972, and the town took on a counterculture vibe. In the 1980s, the county airport began receiving direct flights from cities like Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. The area now draws some of the country’s richest people, including petrochemical billionaire Bill Koch — brother of industrial tycoons Charles and David Koch, the well-known funders of right-wing political causes — who owns a large ranch in the county, where he’s built a full-scale reproduction of an imaginary Old West pioneer town. Today, Crested Butte is clean, bright and shaped by tourism, with colorful shops and posh restaurants, such as Elk Ave. Prime, which serves $65 Wagyu steaks.

Gunnison County encompasses the Gunnison Valley and vast stretches of land to the West, where the Rocky Mountains tumble into foothills. It is almost 82% federal public land. Most of the private land hugs the Gunnison River and its tributaries, which meet the Colorado River, many miles west and over 3,000 feet of elevation down. The area has some of Colorado’s best fly-fishing, mountain biking and big game hunting. For decades now, the county and its businesses have promoted this natural beauty and catered to outside interest in it. But, in 2001, the county instituted a land-use resolution designed to restrain development by giving the county land board oversight of new projects. The goal was to protect resources — especially agricultural land and water — and prevent unchecked change. And still, people and money poured in. Service industries, such as outdoor recreation, retail, lodging and restaurants, became the largest employers. Today, nearly 60% of the county’s property tax revenue comes from property owners whose primary residences are elsewhere.

Today, nearly 60% of the county’s property tax revenue comes from property owners whose primary residences are elsewhere.

Extremes of wealth and poverty, comfort and labor, characterize the 30 miles between Crested Butte and the town of Gunnison, at the southern end of the valley. For Crested Butte property owners and the hundreds of thousands of annual tourists, Gunnison is often just a stop to buy gas and groceries. But it’s also home to most of the valley’s low-paid seasonal and service workers, the people who serve the food, groom the trails, run the lifts, and clean the hotels and lodges.

Service jobs often pay poorly, less than the lost mining jobs. Combined with the decades-long influx of outside wealth and investment, this has spawned housing shortages, income inequality and an expensive rental market. According to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research firm, Gunnison County’s workers devote 32% of their income on average to rent, compared to 19% in non-tourism-based economies. A 2016 county report noted a severe housing shortage and employment imbalance. Jobs are concentrated in Crested Butte, where affordable housing is scarce. Many workers are forced to seek housing in Gunnison, sending rents skyward. An image of this economy is on display early each weekday morning at the Gunnison bus stop, where a free shuttle fills with people employed in the town’s swankier neighbor to the north. Many of the valley’s Latino residents work these service industry jobs; Gunnison’s population is about 10% Latino, including immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and several hundred Cora, an Indigenous people from northwestern Mexico.

A free bus carries workers from Gunnison to their jobs upvalley in Crested Butte. About the only affordable housing in the area can be found at places like the Sherpa Inn, shown here, which offers long-term stays, and the local mobile home parks.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“Members of our immigrant community clean houses, clean rooms at the local hotels, work in the restaurants, also do construction jobs, also work at ranches in the area,” said Marketa Zubkova, a legal representative with the Hispanic Affairs Project, a western Colorado immigrant advocacy group that, among other projects, provides legal counsel and housing aid. Gunnison has several sizable mobile home parks on the outskirts of town, where much of the community’s Spanish-speaking population lives, according to Zubkova and other housing advocates.

Inadequate housing impacts older folks on fixed incomes, as well as young people in the service industry and families packed into overcrowded quarters, according to Loren Ahonen, recently of the regional housing authority. And Gunnison’s cold winters multiply the burden on low-income families. Nighttime temperatures can drop below zero for weeks at a time, causing exorbitant heating bills for people living in trailers with insufficient insulation or broken windows. This creates what Ahonen describes as an “energy justice” issue: According to Department of Energy data, the lowest-income residents spend the most, relative to their income, on utility and heating bills. Gunnison County also has some of Colorado’s highest rates of inadequate plumbing, according to Kaiser Health News. Ahonen worked with a woman who had no running water in her trailer. She melted snow in a frying pan during the winter and gravity-flushed her toilet by pouring in water by hand.

Arvin Ramgoolam in his Crested Butte bookstore, Townie Books.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

TOURISM BROUGHT THE CORONAVIRUS to Gunnison County early. The first official case was recorded on March 10, but many locals think the virus was present several weeks before. “It was the talk of the town,” Arvin Ramgoolam, a co-owner of Rumors Coffee House and Townie Books on Crested Butte’s main street, said. “But no one was willing to admit they were sick.”

Gunnison Valley Health is the only hospital in the county. In March, it had 24 hospital beds, few ventilators and no intensive care unit. An emergency room doctor I spoke to at the time described multi-day 16-hour shifts as the staff struggled to keep control of the situation. Lack of an ICU meant the sickest patients had to be sent 120 miles over the mountains to a bigger hospital in the city of Grand Junction. Tests were available only to those with obvious symptoms and risk factors. On March 28, Gunnison County had the sixth-highest concentration of cases per capita in the entire country, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Gov. Jared Polis shut down Colorado’s downhill ski resorts on March 14, right before spring break, when mountain towns count on earning enough to get through the slow seasons. The closure hurt. The local food bank saw an enormous increase in demand, especially from older people and laid-off service workers. For Ramgoolam, there were more bills to pay than money in the bank. His book distributor required payment for a large order made in anticipation of spring break. Rent was due on the store, which he runs with his wife, Danica, and so was his home mortgage. Ramgoolam feels fortunate that he makes a living talking to people about books every day. But when he closed in March, he wondered if he would ever reopen.

“That’s how small this town is. Someone dies, that’s not a stranger, that’s someone you know.”

The lowest point for Ramgoolam came in late March, when his friend, Mikey Larson, died — Gunnison County’s first coronavirus fatality. A beloved member of the community since the 1980s, Larson owned an eponymous pizza shop in Crested Butte. As news of his death spread, mourners covered the shop’s door with memorials and hand-written notes. A former employee remembered Larson as “an easy-going stoner” who treated his workers well. Ramgoolam told me that when he and Danica first opened their shop, Larson let them use his kitchen for prep. Ramgoolam can still picture him in the back, cooking burritos. 

“That’s how small this town is,” Ramgoolam said. “Someone dies, that’s not a stranger, that’s someone you know.”

Jonathan Houck, the county commissioner who backed the nonresident ban, was also struggling. He was working long days, coordinating the public health response and dealing with business closures, all the while living out of a small camping trailer in his backyard to quarantine from his wife, Roanne, and two kids, who were all showing clear symptoms.

Jonathan Houck stands for a portrait outside the camping trailer in his backyard where he quarantined.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Houck has a salt-and-pepper beard and a crooked smile. He came from Maryland to Colorado in 1990 to rock climb. Eventually, he got into Western Colorado University, in Gunnison, and met Roanne, who was born and raised in Crested Butte. He worked at a coffee shop, fixed bikes at a gear store and did some ranch work. For 12 years, he taught social studies at an alternative high school before he ventured into politics, eventually serving as mayor of Gunnison. His backyard, where he quarantined in March, is an unmistakable homage to Gunnison County: His fire pit is a mine boiler, sliced in half, and his fence is old barn wood. An old sign for Gunnison National Forest hangs nearby.

As commissioner, Houck, a Democrat, became the go-to public official for land-use issues, an important role in a county where recreation, ranching and conservation often collide. The local ranching community appreciates him. He works hard for them, advocates for them. He believes ranching’s continued existence is important to Gunnison County. This can make him unpopular with conservation advocates, but, as he told me, his “absolute obligations” are to the citizens of Gunnison.

“Jonathan Houck is the reason that the PAC got started.” 

In late April, Jim Moran and Houck had a tense phone call about the second-home owner ban. According to Moran, Houck said that his hands were tied and asked, “What do you want me to do about it?” Moran accused Houck and the other commissioners of hiding behind the county public health director who wrote the order. Moran says the call motivated him. “Jonathan Houck is the reason that the PAC got started,” Moran told me.

Houck remembers their conversation differently. He says that he heard Moran out and acknowledged his frustration but stood by the recommendations of public health officials. Houck admits that the tone of the card sent to second-home owners was too abrupt. He values the second-home owners, he said, and sees them as community members, just like the seasonal residents and tourists who visit to hunt, fish or hike, and the college students, who often vote elsewhere. He tries, he told me, to represent that full spectrum, but tough decisions needed to be made. “I stand by those decisions,” Houck said.

AT FIRST, COUNTY OFFICIALS received the brunt of the second-home owners’ ire, but within weeks of the ban, the Facebook group’s sense of grievance expanded to include locals they felt didn’t appreciate their presence during the pandemic. Several members reported angry stares in grocery store parking lots, and a few cars with Texas plates belonging to second-home owners were keyed. Resentment simmered. On April 20, it boiled over after Crested Butte’s annual “Townie Takeover,” when locals bike around town and smoke weed to honor 4/20, the traditional holiday of stoners everywhere. “Those are the people that don’t want the 2nd homeowners in town,” wrote one person on Facebook. “It’s all fun and games until the Kung Flu rates start to spike again and then nobody will have anybody to blame but themselves for this,” responded another.

Not everyone shared this view. Peter Esposito, a resident and property owner in Crested Butte and an energy industry regulatory lawyer, posted a letter in the Facebook group that gently criticized the backlash against the bike ride. A certain funkiness, he argued, separates Crested Butte from more buttoned-up Colorado ski towns. He saw the Townie Takeover and a multi-day pagan bacchanal in autumn called Vinotok as things to embrace. Esposito agreed that the county’s non-resident ban was more aggressive than it needed to be, and he pitched a collaborative approach to bring part- and full-time residents together. His advice initially got a warm reception, he told me. But then it vanished; Esposito said Moran had deleted it. Esposito concluded that Moran and a few others had already decided on a strategy: “to have a fight,” he told me. Esposito was later booted from the Facebook group, along with several other dissenters.

The second-home owners found allies in a group of disgruntled local business owners. Some were angry at the COVID-19 orders, which they saw as heavy-handed, and they feared that restrictions would last into the summer tourist season. In late April , a group called Save Gunnison’s Summer and Businesses took out a full-page ad in a local paper demanding a faster and more concrete reopening plan. It included a petition with around 200 signatures from local residents and businesses, including some members of the Facebook group, who were worried their businesses would not survive the shutdown.

Some did not. Gunnison County lost the Majestic, the only movie theater in a two-hour radius. A venerable and much-loved independent cinema, the Majestic had three screens and draft beer. The theater’s landlord had raised the rent by 30% the year before, and the shutdown pushed it over the edge. A guitar shop on Gunnison’s Main Street closed in June. Ramgoolam’s bookstore in Crested Butte teetered on the brink, but pulled back after online ordering kicked in, as locals made a point to send business his way. Ramgoolam believes that the county made the right decision, but other business owners disagree.

“Our rights to earn a living, travel freely, come to our homes and to make the best decisions about the health, safety and risk to our family is ours,” the petition read, “and not your spigot to turn on and off.”

A home on the hill above Mount Crested Butte reflects the surrounding landscape.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

SO, WHAT DO WE KNOW about them, these vocal second-home owners? They worked hard for everything they own. They are clear on this. Their critics, they believe, are often motivated by jealousy. “I’m certainly not ‘rich.’ I’ve worked for my entire life to have the properties I own,” wrote one group member. Like many mountain communities, the Gunnison Valley attracts a motley mix of younger residents — seasonal public-land employees, ski bums who work the lifts, river guides, college graduates who stick around. “Irresponsible, non-tax-paying, bored children who will never plant roots here successfully,” one Facebook comment called them. In early April, a second-home owner from Oklahoma City, described “local adult skateboarders and bikers” picking up donated food at a food pantry in Crested Butte. “These takers need to pony up or get out,” she wrote. “Sadly,” another replied, “there are many entitled ‘takers’ here.”

“I’m certainly not ‘rich.’ I’ve worked for my entire life to have the properties I own.”

In a phone interview, Moran dissected the implications of the word “rich.” Describing the second-home owners as such was a tactic employed by the media to “divide people by social strata,” he told me. I pointed out Gunnison County’s housing shortage to Moran, who, from 2008-2011, was an advisor of the private equity firm Lone Star Funds — the biggest buyer of distressed mortgage securities in the world after the 2008 financial crisis. After the crash, the firm acquired billions in bad mortgages and aggressively foreclosed on thousands of homes, according to The New York Times. I asked Moran if, compared to locals who struggle to pay rent, people who own two or more properties should be considered wealthy. “I think that’s wrong,” he replied.

Over the summer, I obtained access to the Facebook group. Beneath the anger at the County Commission and the exasperation with the local newspapers and adult skateboarders, a deeper grievance burned, one that was expressed consistently in the group. “Our money supports all of the people in the valley,” wrote one man. “Where is the appreciation and gratitude for the decades of generosity?” wrote another. According to the second-home owners, Gunnison County’s economic survival and most of its residents’ livelihoods depend on their economic contributions and continued goodwill. Their donations prop up the local nonprofits. Their broken derailleurs keep the bike shops open. In late April, Moran sent an angry message to a local server who had criticized the second-home owners, posting his note to the GV2H Facebook group as well. Moran, who had apparently left the server a large tip, called her comments “a betrayal of the good people who have been gracious to you.” Around that time, there was talk on the Facebook group of compiling a list of locals they considered ungrateful. “People who rely on others for their livelihoods should not bite the hand that feeds them,” wrote one second-home owner.

The list, which was posted on Facebook, became known as the Rogues Gallery. It named 14 people described as “folks who oppose GV2H.” The list, which was later deleted, included a local pastor and an artist. Sometimes it noted where someone worked and what they did. Repercussions were hinted at. “One of those big mouths is slinging drinks for tips — I’ll be sure to leave her a little tip — ‘Maybe don’t run your mouth so much on social media when you depend on those people to help pay your bills,’ ” one Facebook commenter wrote.

“One of those big mouths is slinging drinks for tips — I’ll be sure to leave her a little tip — ‘Maybe don’t run your mouth so much on social media when you depend on those people to help pay your bills.’ ” 

Amber Thompson, a longtime server at Crested Butte restaurants, was not in the Rogues Gallery, but was mentioned later as a possible addition after several online arguments with Moran and others from the GV2H Facebook group. She gets especially mad, she told me, when a second-home owner cites a big tip as evidence of their authority and value. As a server, she said, her job is simply to deliver food. The demand for gratitude, the resentment when they don’t receive it: “It’s a way to intimidate people, to make them bow down, and I just won’t do it.”

The first name on the Rogues Gallery was Ramgoolam, and he, too, declined to back down. His offence was a Facebook post in which he asked why Gunnison County residents were incapable of making their own political decisions — a thinly veiled critique of the super PAC, which Moran had registered in May. Shortly after learning about the Rogues Gallery, Ramgoolam wrote another Facebook post, thanking the community for its support during the pandemic. It included a picture of him in a red bandanna, carrying a Captain America shield. He intended it as defiance.

A tip jar at Rumors Coffee and Tea House reads, “Tipping gives you magic powers, and gives me the magic power to pay rent.”
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“I think (the super PAC) spits in the face of the relationship we have with our neighbors in this valley,” Ramgoolam said. “Whether you are a primary homeowner or a second-home owner, you respect people’s opinions and everyone is welcome to the table, but to overpower everyone at the table and try to take all the chairs for yourself is just wrong.”

For many in the Facebook group, opinionated locals interfered with their ability to relax and enjoy the Gunnison Valley. Fun, after all, is what brings them to Crested Butte. But fun was hard to come by in 2020. People were irate when the county declared a mask mandate on June 8. “We come to decompress, to relax, to regenerate!” one person wrote. “That’s a pressure we don’t need! Or don’t WANT, which isn’t a crime either!”

This came to a head when local demonstrations were held, prompted by George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. One of them took place on June 27, in Crested Butte. After a short rally, a crowd proceeded up main street, led by the Brothers of Brass, a funk band from Denver. Demonstrators then lay on the blacktop for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time that Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck. Many diners, who were sitting at outdoor patios on either side of the march, paused their meals for the duration. But on the Facebook group, indignation bubbled up. “People come to the Valley to relax and enjoy nature,” wrote one commenter. “This is made impossible when ‘protesters’ are bused in for a photo-op (not to mention pollution, noise, aggravation, and trash).” Several other commenters also insinuated outside influence. (Other than the band, there is no evidence that the protesters were not primarily local.) The Crested Butte Town Council’s subsequent decision to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the main street prompted another wave of irritation. “Crested Butte has clearly forgotten why people (tourists or second homers) like going to the mountains. It’s about escaping the craziness and the BS of the cities,” one of the second-home owners wrote. A few others announced that they would no longer go downtown.

“The people who serve them live here, too, and they live here for the whole year.”

This hostility came as no surprise to Elizabeth Cobbins, the lead organizer of the Gunnison Black Lives Matter demonstration. The second-home owners come to their vacation properties to “escape the real world,” she said. They forget, she told me, that the valley is more than a ski destination. It includes a college that is home to many students of color, and a sizable Hispanic community. The second-home owners feel their opinions matter because of their economic contributions, which, Cobbins said, are important, but, “the people who serve them live here, too, and they live here for the whole year.”

At the time, Cobbins was the program coordinator at the multicultural affairs program at Western Colorado University in Gunnison. Over the phone, I read her some of the internal GV2H comments about the demonstrations. “It’s funny and ironic that these people say they feel uncomfortable,” she said, given her own experience as a Black woman in Gunnison. She was often the sole person of color in social spaces. 

“People get defensive when they hear ‘privilege’ and ‘white privilege,’ but that’s how privilege works,” she said. “That they feel threatened by these protests, even though they were nonviolent. … to say ‘I feel threatened’ shows privilege.”

Cobbins grew up and went to school in Mississippi. She told me that she was “not an outdoorsy person” and had never heard of Gunnison when she applied for the campus job. Friendships came slowly, though, in the end, she found “a second family” — others like her who did not quite mesh with the mountain town cultural sensibility. “Not everyone in Gunnison likes bluegrass and mountain biking,” she said with a chuckle.

After the June demonstrations, though, Cobbins felt drained. After a few years in Gunnison, it seemed like the end of something. Her lease was up at the end of July, and she decided to move back to Mississippi. “My journey in Gunnison was done,” she said. “It was such a satisfying, bittersweet moment.”

Dave Taylor stands for a portrait on Election Day.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

AS THE SNOW MELTED and wildflowers bloomed in alpine meadows, two candidates emerged, intent on shaking up the Gunnison County Commission. Both felt the county treated second-home owners badly when the pandemic started and that the local health order went too far. This prompted cheers in the Facebook group. The first to enter the race was “KOA Dave” Taylor, a garrulous fixture of the Gunnison community. Taylor, who owns the local KOA campground, is known locally as a generous presence. He volunteers at the food bank and drives a public-school bus. He sometimes puts up people at the KOA when they can’t find housing. The campground is full of animals: four donkeys that live in a pen, several free-roaming goats and a few pigs, acquired from 4-H kids he met on the bus. His steer, Norman, is 6 feet, 2¾ inches tall. Without a tape measure, I was unable to verify Taylor’s claim, but Norman is a very tall steer indeed.

Taylor’s political pitch centered on his accounting background and business acumen, something he felt the commission lacked. Many agreed with him: Taylor received more than six times the number of write-in votes needed to make the ballot as a Republican. He was hoping to take the seat held by Liz Smith, an English lecturer at Western Colorado University and, at the time, the chair of the local Democratic Party. A serious college runner, Smith first came to Gunnison for the trails. She’s the sort of person who finishes third in the Grand Traverse — a 40-mile race through the mountains from Crested Butte to Aspen, with 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

Despite her love of the trails, Smith was often critical of the commission’s handling of tourism, more so than Houck, her fellow Democrat. The summer saw a massive wave of in-state visitors from metro Denver. The money saved many local businesses, but the impacts were extreme. Smith said she got an earful from locals in Marble, a small community north of Crested Butte. “I got yelled at,” she said. She heard about overrun trails, defecation and trash at campsites, RVs lining Forest Service roads for miles, and damage by off-road vehicles. If you market the county as a recreation paradise, that’s what it will become, Smith told me. The tourism economy needs to endure, but the county has to mitigate its effects. “I love trails as much as anyone out here,” she said, “but it’s not about me, it’s about what our community as a whole needs.”

Liz Smith, left, holds a sign on Gunnison’s Main Street on Election Day.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Houck, the incumbent Democrat, was challenged by Trudy Vader, an unaffiliated candidate. Vader, a former public-school administrator, is a fourth-generation Gunnison Valley resident. She grew up working on her family’s ranch, which was largely lost during the 1980s farm foreclosure crisis. That material loss reflects a larger cultural one. She believes the Gunnison community is facing the erosion of its ranching heritage.

Vader is measured and serious in conversation. During the campaign, she nearly always wore a wide-brimmed felt hat. The County Commission’s behavior nudged her into the race, she told me, but that’s only the surface. More than any other candidate, Vader consistently brought up the service-worker underclass, the emphasis on recreation and tourism as opposed to small industry and business with their better-paying jobs. More than 44% of Gunnison County voters, the largest proportion, are unaffiliated, and Vader set her sights on attracting support from those left behind, the “downvalley” residents obscured by Crested Butte’s economic power. One of the first things Vader did, upon entering the race, was to post a long note on Facebook about a 2015 DUI that caused her to lose her job as a school superintendent. Vader struggled with addiction for many years but is sober now. If nothing else, she told me, she hoped that her campaign would encourage others to seek help and not fight addiction on their own.

Both Vader and Taylor’s campaigns received praise and support from the GV2H super PAC. From the beginning, Taylor was more willing to accept this association with the second-home owners. Vader was more circumspect. She told the second-home owners that she governs for the good of the county and would, if elected, make decisions that would upset them. Even so, Vader often spoke to members of the super PAC, meeting with Moran and others more than once and soliciting signatures for her write-in campaign on the Facebook group. Moran, Gunnison Republican Party Chair Jane Chaney and other prominent backers of the super PAC encouraged donations to her campaign.

“Access to my ears is free to all.”

On July 17, both Vader and Taylor attended a party at Moran’s Crested Butte mansion along with Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, at the time deep into one of the nation’s most-watched Senate races. (He lost.) That evening, Moran’s street and adjacent roads were filled with Teslas, Porsches and custom Jeeps with lifted suspensions. Two young men in Trump 2020 masks and ballcaps directed traffic at the entrance to Moran’s block. As night came on, music spilled out from the house. Torches lined the patio, while, down in the valley, the lights of Crested Butte winked.

Word travels fast in Gunnison County. Soon enough, Taylor and Vader were defending their relationship with the super PAC, which represents people who would not be their constituents. Both were questioned about it at debates and forums. In an August letter to the Gunnison Country Times, “an independent voter,” who said he’d voted for both major parties in the past, called Taylor and Vader’s attendance “disrespectful” and “disturbing.” Who will they represent, if elected? he asked. “I can assure you that they both have lost my vote already.” In the same edition, Taylor wrote a letter stating that everything was aboveboard. “Access to my ears is free to all,” he wrote.

Trudy Vader, a former public-school administrator and fourth-generation Gunnison Valley resident, poses with her dog, Eli.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

THE GUNNISON COUNTY COMMISSION RACES ramped up after Labor Day. All signs pointed to the widening of Gunnison County’s economic divide, and the housing issue quickly rose to the top of both races. All four candidates — Democrats Smith and Houck, and the challengers, unaffiliated Vader and Republican Taylor — agreed that there was an affordable housing crisis. In multiple debates, Vader hit Houck, who was running for his third term, often and hard for the county’s failure to meet its affordable housing goals. The commission failed to act with enough urgency, she said.

But it’s complicated. In 2017, Houck and the rest of the County Commission pushed an enormous housing development called Brush Creek, just south of Crested Butte, which, combined with 76 new rental units in Gunnison reserved for moderate-income workers, would have nearly fulfilled the county’s goals. But while the county was onboard, the city of Crested Butte balked at the number of units, in large part due to a vigorous backlash from a group of local property owners, including future members of the second-home owners Facebook group. “Classic NIMBYism,” a local housing official called it. I asked Vader how she could run a campaign that emphasized housing while accepting support from people who helped squash a substantial housing project. “I can’t help who supports me,” she said, adding that the super PAC continued to back her after she made housing her main campaign plank.

Like many alpine areas in the West, Gunnison County — and Crested Butte in particular — has seen a surge of transplants since the pandemic. Wealthy people are abandoning more populated metro areas as remote-work becomes the norm. Jackson, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; and Sun Valley, Idaho, among others, have all seen housing-market booms. (See our February Fact & Figures, The Zoom boom.) By most metrics, Gunnison County real estate had an unprecedented year. By mid-October, rural Crested Butte housing sales had already surpassed all of 2019, and single-family-home sales in the town were up 56%. Housing prices rose, as well: The three-month rolling average was up 19% on July 1, compared to 2019, and up 24% compared to 2018, according to county assessor data. Enrollment in Crested Butte’s schools was up, and the county collected a record amount of lodging tax revenue in September, The Crested Butte News reported.

Michelle Burns, a Crested Butte and Gunnison real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway, called summer and fall 2020 the busiest season she’d ever seen. “People do want to get out of the city,” she said over the phone, “whether it’s away from COVID, away from proximity, especially if they can work remotely.”

“If you are going to make money on other people’s living situations, you should be able to meet health and safety standards.” 

In the county commissioner race, the housing issue took a personal turn. Taylor owns a small apartment complex in Gunnison. From the outside, it appears run-down, with broken windows visible from the street during the summer. According to Taylor, the average apartment rent is $487. He could nearly double that, he told me, and still have tenants. “I have rent-controlled my own property,” he said. That’s one view. The other is that Taylor is more lax when managing the living spaces of those who have nowhere else to go. “If you are going to make money on other people’s living situations, you should be able to meet health and safety standards,” said a local county housing official. At a forum hosted by The Crested Butte News, one audience member quoted a newspaper article from 2017, where Taylor had pledged to repair the broken windows. Taylor said he had “no excuse” for the state of the windows and promised again to repair them, this time within two weeks, which he did. He again defended how he runs the apartments. “I am guilty of not fixing those windows, and I am proud of how I have kept rents down on 13 units.”

Jennifer Kermode, director of the Gunnison County Housing Authority, said both sides have a point. Taylor does rent his units at rates not generally available in the area. Still, certain quality-of-life standards ought to be met. “Dave is not the worst” landlord in Gunnison County, she said.

In Gunnison, housing for lower-income workers and families is so scarce that several local motels have essentially transformed entirely into long-term, month-to-month rentals. This shortage can leave low-income workers at the mercy of exploitative landlords, especially if the renters’ first language is not English, or they lack U.S. citizenship. Devan Haney, from the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Division, described the bind like this: Housing is so hard to come by — especially when you factor in the pandemic layoffs — that anyone who finds an affordable place will put up with a great deal just to stay there. Landlords know this, and this advantage can breed abuse.

Country Meadows Mobile Home Park in Gunnison, Colorado. During the pandemic, rent on lots has been raised multiple times.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Despite a statewide eviction moratorium during the pandemic, Haney received reports of landlords attempting to kick people out of their homes. Haney and several others singled out Country Meadows Mobile Home Park as one of the worst offenders. The owner of the park did not respond to requests for comment. According to multiple park residents, the owners raised the rent from $350 to $375 in April and then later to $425, just as the pandemic’s economic fallout was peaking. One resident who was laid off in the spring and has since found work, spoke to me anonymously for fear of repercussions from the landlord, who has threatened another rent increase. Throughout the fall, the park remained littered with branches and tree trunks that came down during an early September blizzard. “(The landlord) said, ‘If you have a problem you can leave,’ ” the resident told me, fully aware that the tenants had few options. Most of the residents own their own trailers, but the trailers are old, falling apart, and would not survive transport. And there are virtually no other places in Gunnison with comparable rent, Haney told me. When we spoke in November, she was still working with several families with no lodging and winter coming on.

IN MID-SEPTEMBER, all four candidates spoke at a small voter forum on a ranch in Powderhorn, a town of 148 people, on the county’s southern edge. A harsh sun beat down from a cloudless sky, and the yellow aspens blazed on the mountain, making the surrounding fir and pine look painted black. Eight voters and four dogs attended the event. A yellow Lab kept nudging my hand as I took notes.

Vader, who spoke first, criticized Houck for favoring recreation and tourism at the expense of other small businesses. She singled out his 2017 vote, which helped kill a business expansion by a trash and recycling company started by a local couple. “If you look at how this county has handled small businesses if they are not tourism or recreation, they’re not handled well,” she said.

“If you look at how this county has handled small businesses if they are not tourism or recreation, they’re not handled well.” 

Houck pushed back. He ticked off the sectors that make up the county economy: agriculture, the ski area, tourism, the university and hospital, oil and gas. “It’s a five-legged stool,” he said. “We can’t do without any of it, and we need all of it.” Houck sees his role as someone who can bring together disparate factions and reconcile competing interests. He cited a proposed network of new trails on public land behind the university campus in Gunnison. Houck brought trail advocates, the school, ranchers and wildlife officials to the table, and everyone left with something. The mountain bikers had to pay for rollovers — metal ramps for mountain bikes — and spring-loaded gates to keep the cattle behind the fence line. Wildlife officials approved the trails in return for longer-than-required closures for sage grouse mating season and mule deer migration. The ranchers have to put up with bikers zooming through the rangeland, but their cattle can graze the area when the herds move to summer pastures high in the national forest.

In the other race, Taylor, the Republican, hammered the commission’s decision to ban the second-home owners, and criticized the county budget as bloated and misdirected. Throughout the campaign, he noted that he had personally gone through all of the county budget. “We’ve got to evaluate skill sets,” he said. “I’m an accountant, I’m a businessman, I get along with people.”

In the weeks leading up to Election Day, several large GV2H super PAC signs appeared along the highway, urging voters to balance the County Commission and back Vader and Taylor. Several ads appeared in the paper, and a few local businesses displayed banners. In June, Moran had celebrated a five-figure donation to the super PAC and set the group’s fundraising goal at $3 million. This startling number soon leaked out into the community. No candidate for the Gunnison County Commission had ever spent more than $30,000 on a campaign. (Moran spent the next several months denying that he had ever said such a thing, but High Country News has reviewed a photo of the post in which he sets the $3 million goal.) In all, the PAC raised $47,500. By comparison, all four candidates raised approximately $70,500 combined.

In late October, Moran told me on the phone that, win or lose, he considered the GV2H effort a success. Back in April, the county rescinded its demand that second-home owners leave the county. “We’ve been successful in voicing our concerns loudly enough that they have been spoken about in virtually every single newspaper article printed since March,” he said. “If our goal was to have a say, then we’ve certainly had some say.

“Even if they both lose,” he continued, “I’m still going to be here with a permanent organization expressing how second-home owners feel about policy.”

On Election Day, County Commission candidates Dave Taylor and Trudy Vader, with her dog, Eli, stood outside Gunnison’s one polling place.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

ON NOV. 3, GUNNISON County voters had their say. It was sunny and unseasonably warm. The candidates were out and about. Taylor sat facing the exit to Gunnison’s sole polling location with a sign that said “Thank you for voting.” He was in a good mood, loudly greeting passersby by name and telling stories. He used to be so fun, he told me, that he would get invited to the weddings of people he barely knew. Vader was there, too. She had attached a purple campaign sign to her dog, Eli. Two blocks down, Liz Smith and a few supporters stood on a Main Street corner and waved signs.

The results came in quickly that night, and it was not close. Houck and Smith cruised to re-election, with 63% and 60% of votes respectively. Voter turnout in Gunnison County — as in the rest of the country — was huge. According to The Crested Butte News, more than 88% of eligible voters submitted ballots.

When the race was called, Houck was in his backyard, where he had spent most of the early weeks of the pandemic. He smiled and hugged his son. “It felt good that the community acknowledged that what I’m doing is what they asked me to do,” he said.

Minutes later, my phone buzzed with a text from Taylor, asking for Smith’s number so that he could congratulate her. I asked him for his response: “My motto is ‘no complaining — no explaining,’ ” he wrote back. “That means no excuses. My life will continue to be good and I do value the experience.”

On election night, friends gathered in Jonathan Houck’s backyard to watch the results.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

The next morning, I drove east of town out to Trudy Vader’s property, the last 40 acres that remain of the family ranch. She’s living in a mobile home until she builds a house on the property. Vader breeds a few horses, and when I arrived, she was riding one named Tule. “Horse therapy,” she said, “I deserve it.”

Vader is proud of her campaign. She stuck up for the low-income workers and pushed Houck on affordable housing, she said. She choked up while talking about the limited economic possibilities for younger generations. Eventually, I brought up the super PAC. She acknowledged that her association with the second-home owners — her willingness to take their support and attend the dinner at Moran’s house with Gardner — may have hurt her. She does not regret hearing them out, but, in retrospect, she admitted, “I probably wouldn’t have gone to the second meeting.

“In my mind, I just went to listen to everybody,” she went on. “And I have been everywhere in this county and I have listened to everybody.”

At the candidate forum in Powderhorn, a tall man with a ruddy face and a cowboy hat expressed a common sentiment in the Gunnison Valley. He and his wife are ranchers. He said that the migration of people into the valley “needs to happen, no doubt,” but he worries that the new arrivals neglect to learn about the people and practices already present. He fears the valley’s agricultural sensibility will go the way of the mines. People who buy second homes here made their money elsewhere, he said. “A lot of people come here because they like what they see,” he went on, “but they are here for a little bit, and then they want to change it.”

“A lot of people come here because they like what they see, but they are here for a little bit, and then they want to change it.”

Change is coming to Gunnison County, fed by the post-pandemic movement of people into the area. The details of this change are murky, even as the economic and cultural divisions in the Gunnison Valley remain vivid. Smith, who emphasized mitigating tourism’s impacts during the campaign, acknowledged this point. Reflecting on this sense of an evolving community, she quoted Gertrude Stein on the loss of the writer’s own childhood home in Oakland, California: “There is no ‘there’ there.” As a county commissioner, Smith described the central question confronting her as: “How can we steward this thoughtfully?”

I asked Arvin Ramgoolam for his thoughts on the Gunnison Valley. Sitting behind his bookstore, he told me that community is about social bonds between people, where mutual dependence upon and responsibility for one’s neighbors link individuals in an interlocking series of relationships. One acquires a place in a community as one shares in those relationships of mutual care and accountability. In gambling terms, he said, all his bets are on Crested Butte.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “I don’t have another home. I don’t really have another place off the top of my head that I could even think of.”

It’s community in this sense — a shared life across time and a shared fate in a specific place — that eludes the second-home owners. By virtue of their wealth, their permanent residency stamped elsewhere, they remain removed from the fate and well-being of the people who live full-time in the valley. They can escape in a way that Ramgoolam cannot. There’s an entanglement with the fate of his neighbors, he said, that fundamentally is not shared by someone with the opportunity to pick up and leave when troubles come. What happens to Crested Butte, good or bad, happens to him.      

Houses on the outskirts of Crested Butte, Colorado, in Gunnison County, where second-home owners are battling locals for political control.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.


Nick Bowlin is a contributing editor at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Note: The story was updated to clarify the name of Crested Butte Mountain Resort.