Vail’s Summer of Epic Woe Continues
Keystone’s Bergman Bowl Six-Pack Delayed to 2023; East Vail Housing Delayed Until Sun Explodes
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A sad note to start: North American Snowsports Journalists Association President Jeff Blumenfeld needs some help. In his own words:
On a personal note, many of you may know that due to pending kidney failure I’m actively seeking a living kidney donor. I have been humbled by the outpouring of concern by the ski industry, something I’ve been a part of since becoming a ski journalist while at Syracuse in the early 1970s. I’m appreciative of Ski Area Management and Bernie Weichsel for relaying my information.
If you or someone you know might be able to help, start with this confidential questionnaire from UC Health Transplant Center in Denver: www.UCHealthlivingdonor.org
Until then, I can’t wait for that first run of the season.
The wait for a deceased donor, according to SAM, is “five years at least.” Sorry to moralize, but that’s pathetic. Once you’re dead, your kidneys aren’t terribly useful to you. Since Jeff isn’t in a place where five years is a reasonable wait, hopefully someone living can help out.
Yes it’s a fiascofest
After a shaky winter, which followed a Covid winter, which followed the Covid shutdown winter, this summer was probably not on Vail’s wishlist. It was supposed to be a chance to breathe, to throw 21 new lifts in the ground, to build 875 units of employee housing, to fully and finally digest the 21 ski areas the company has purchased since 2019, and, of course, to sell an epic number of Epic Passes. Vail seemed to be understanding and owning its mistakes: In March, the company announced a $175 million investment in employees, raising the front-line minimum wage to $20 an hour and ramping up on-site HR support and affordable housing construction. In June, Vail chair Rob Katz took responsibility for the company’s staffing shortages last season in a controversial speech at the National Ski Areas Association’s Nashville convention. It’s hard to run one ski area. It’s nearly building-the-world-in-seven-days impossible to manage 40. But perhaps the toughest moments had passed for the world’s largest ski area operator.
I guess not. Vail’s summer still turned into a fiascofest. At least in the headlines. In May, the Town of Vail shut down a previously approved, 165-bed affordable housing project on land Vail Resorts owned in East Vail. The stated concern was to protect the winter range of a local bighorn sheep herd, though the land, hard by Interstate 70, is already rippling with single-family mansions. In June, the Park City Planning Commission halted work on two enormous lifts, a six-pack and what would have been Vail’s first eight-pack in North America (luckily, demolition of the legacy lifts that these would have replaced – the Eagle triple and the Silverlode six-pack – had not yet begun; Park City removed the Eaglet triple last year). The blocking of both projects came down to what The Colorado Sun’s Jason Blevins called a “growing disconnect between resort operators and local communities,” that is especially profound for Vail Resorts.
Project shutdowns in two of America’s most conspicuous mountain towns would have been enough (imagine someone fighting new lifts at Big Boulder, where the Jurassic-aged chairlifts were literally falling apart in the woods when I skied there in 2020). But last month, two more asteroids struck, one Vail’s fault, the other owned by the Vail Town Council.
At the top of the world, a construction crew built an illegal access road as they worked on the 500-acre, 16-trail Bergman Bowl expansion at Keystone. The Forest Service shut down the project while Vail came up with a mitigation and restoration plan. Vail immediately hired an outside firm to do so. They worked quickly, and White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Blevins that “Quite honestly, it’s the best restoration plan I’ve ever seen in my life.” It was too late to save the lift for 2022, however. “The U.S. Forest Service has determined that high alpine portions of our project will need to undergo further environmental review,” Keystone General Manager and VP Chris Sorensen said in a prepared statement. “As a result, Keystone will not complete the Bergman Bowl Express lift for the 2022-23 season.”
Then, last week, the Vail Town Council issued an emergency ordinance “suspending the issuance of permits for the Booth Heights [East Vail] property”:
The Booth Heights Property contains significant natural and wildlife resources, and provides critical habitat for a Colorado bighorn sheep herd. The Town is seeking to acquire the Booth Heights Property as open space, and thereafter to maintain the Booth Heights Property as open space pursuant to Section 13.11 of the Town's Home Rule Charter. The current owner of the Booth Heights Property, Vail Resorts, has declined the Town's offers to purchase the Booth Heights Property for fair market value, the Town is now seeking to acquire the fee interest in the Booth Heights Property by condemnation.
Vail executives and lawyers responded quickly. Vail Resorts Mountain Division EVP & COO Bill Rock sent a three-page letter outlining the extraordinary nature of the emergency declaration:
The Town has decided not to apply this Emergency Ordinance to any other property in the same East Vail area, including properties squarely in the middle of the bighorn sheep’s winter range. …
Vail Resorts has several concerns about the Emergency Ordinance, and the significant impact on its Affordable Housing project.
First, it is unclear what the Town is claiming to be an emergency. …
Second, despite passing its Resolution authorizing condemnation of Vail Resorts’ private property on May 3, 2022 and sending Vail Resorts its Notice of Intent to condemn the property on May 13, 2022, the Town of Vail has not filed any condemnation case. As the Town is well aware, were it to file a condemnation case, it would be the Town’s responsibility to prove to the Court that it is entitled to condemn the property. …
Third, there has been no public meeting at which any expert has recommended that the company’s private land known as East Vail may not be disturbed “in any manner.” …
Fourth, the work Vail Resorts seeks to conduct in its permit application is the same soils testing plan and work that the Town of Vail previously allowed Triumph to conduct in 2018 and 2019. … It is therefore unclear what “irreparable damage” the Town thinks would occur.
Vail Resorts’ fifth concern is with the arbitrary and counterproductive timing of the Emergency Ordinance. Affordable housing is a crisis in the Town of Vail. We cannot afford to permanently reduce affordable housing by eliminating this project, especially given the many years of collaboration between our company and the Town to achieve this project. We believe a Town that is attempting to block affordable housing represents the wrong public policy, the wrong outcome, and a troubling precedent.
Sarah Kellner, outside counsel for Vail Resorts, drafted a second letter, calling the ordinance “drastic and unprecedented,” and stating that she had “never come across a single case where a town council has issued a moratorium on permits for and development of a single landowner’s fully and legally entitled property.” She summarized the situation this way: “the town here is trying to take Vail Resorts’ rights away by governmental fiat without a court deciding whether it even has the right to do so.”
The town has rebuffed Vail’s attempts to negotiate. Rock, in a statement provided to The Storm Skiing Journal:
Over the last several weeks, I have reached out to the Town Council formally and informally to engage in direct discussions about the six projects you [the Town of Vail] listed in your May 13, 2022 letter which you published in the Vail Daily. You have rejected all of my offers to meet… I’m here.
The Town of Vail has already demonstrated that increased activity by people, including AirBNBs and vacation rentals, new construction, and even an increased allowance for over 100 students and corresponding traffic at the Vail Mountain School can occur within East Vail and coexist with the bighorn sheep herd. The important question remains: why is this increased human activity in the sheep winter range is allowable while the Town of Vail is actively preventing affordable housing?
Vail Resorts is still committed to the East Vail Affordable housing project, and regardless of who came to the table when – we are still committed to partnership on all options set forth by the Town of Vail. The fact remains that the biggest losers from last night’s decision are the employees who make Vail a remarkable place to live and visit – they need and deserve a place to live.
So here we are. The lift construction delay at Keystone and the housing situation in Vail are too very different issues happening at two very different properties. Bergman Bowl has a clear resolution: the resort will repair the road, and the lift should go in next summer. Until then it can get cozy in the parking lot. The Town of Vail situation is trickier. This has the hallmarks of a case that could reach the Supreme Court. Love or hate Vail Resorts, a town threatening to seize private land without following due process is alarming, whether the council is acting out of spite or genuine concern.
It would be easy to conclude that these cascading problems are the result of Vail Resorts growing too quickly. But this summer’s issues have been happening at Vail Ground Zero, where (with the exception of Park City), the company has operated for decades. Vail should have the relationships to avoid these sorts of conflicts, and the internal expertise to avoid high-altitude terrain snafus. Yes, the Vail Town Council is being intransigent and reckless, but how did we get here? This legal battle will likely cost millions. Who wins here? No one but the lawyers.
I wonder what the bighorn sheep think of all this. There they sit, perched over the town and the clogged interstate, chewing on grass. “I’m a sheep,” they think. “I hope a mountain lion doesn’t eat me today. Look at the long ugly road packed with cars. I wish I could cross it. Bahhh. Oh look, some grass to eat down below. Watch me rock this cliff like McConkey.” The sheep leaps off a cliff, sticks the landing. “Bahhh, I’m a sheep,” it thinks. “I hope I don’t get eaten by a mountain lion today.”
Of course, things are not all bad for Vail. The company’s remaining 18 new chairlifts – check them out here, there are some incredible projects happening – appear to be on schedule (a representative from Vail Resorts confirmed that the lifts at Mount Snow, Stowe, and Attitash were on schedule; I was unable to confirm the status of the lifts in the Midwest, Pennsylvania, and the West). The company recently closed on its 41st resort and first European property – a 55 percent stake in Switzerland’s Andermatt-Sedrun. In June, the company announced that it was finally upgrading the most hated lift in America – the Attitash summit triple – with a high-speed quad in 2023. Construction of a massive employee housing project at Park City appears to be on schedule. And, of course, Vail Resorts is still selling an epic number of Epic Passes, with sales through May 31 up nine percent in units sold and 11 percent in sales dollars. This is a company thinking long, hitting short-term bumps. Next season is going to tell us a lot about their powers to groom this chop into corduroy.
Below the paid subscriber jump: America’s tallest chairlift gets an upgrade, two new mountains join Freedom Pass, why the Ragged Mountain expansion is officially dead, I hate interactive trailmaps, a map of all ski areas on U.S. Forest Service land, how I got the Jay Peak story so wrong & how I’m preventing a repeat, & much more.