Affordable-housing proposal upsets Vail's wealthy; Revitalization plan stirs fears about property values


VAIL, Colo. -- Battles over growth bedevil communities throughout the country, but rarely have they generated such anger as they have in one of Colorado's premier ski resorts.

Objections over plans to build affordable housing for people who work in hotels, shops and restaurants grew so heated this summer that Mayor Rob Ford quit two years before his term expires.

"At some of the meetings we had, things got so bad that I was uncomfortable without an undercover police officer there to protect me," Ford said. "At times I thought guys were going to pop me right there in Town Hall."

The conflict is familiar in affluent resort towns. With Vail's winter popularity falling in recent years because of aging hotels and intense competition from other ski resorts, officials outlined an economic plan to revitalize the town center. The centerpiece is a Marriott hotel for which groundbreaking is scheduled next summer. Other projects have begun.

But new amenities mean more employees. And having more employees means creating living space for them, a challenge in a town that is 98 percent developed and where homes typically cost at least $500,000. When workers in resorts such as Vail are forced to find cheaper housing many miles away, the long commutes persuade many of them to seek jobs closer to home, leading to a shortage of workers at the resort during peak season.

To reverse trends that allowed Breckenridge to overtake Vail last year as Colorado's leading ski resort, Ford and the City Council sought suggestions from Vail residents and later identified several sites around town for housing that would cost less than $200,000.

That is when the trouble began, Ford said.

People living in the area of the planned construction began objecting, he said, fearing that their property values would plummet. Three groups have sued the city, contending that town officials are violating local tax laws by buying open land for the housing. One plaintiff, Charles Bernhardt, a carpenter, lives adjacent to a prospective housing site but said his proximity to the site had nothing to do with his decision to sue.

At least lawsuits confront problems in a civil manner, contrary to how some residents have addressed issues, Ford said.

"At one Christmas party, one of the grand dames of Vail came up and lit into me," he said, without identifying her. "She screamed so loud that spit was going out of her mouth. I couldn't even understand what she was saying."

Other residents have made their feelings known, Ford said. Ford said John Glenn, a former Democratic senator from Ohio and a Vail homeowner since 1980, complained to officials that some of the housing might be near him.

Glenn conceded that his letter was "reasonably tough." But he said his objections were based on assurances given when he bought his mountainside condominium that the open area beside it would not be developed. He said he does not oppose a housing project on the land if it does not block his view of the valley.

"The level of incivility is more than I'm willing to put up with," Ford said. "I like to ski, then sit down at the bar to drink a beer and not have someone come up to me and complain. I want to go back to skiing and being a nice guy again."

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