Skirmish on Battle Mountain
It was the shot heard ’round the world, if your world revolves around Minturn.
Last June, a Canadian real estate development company broached the idea for a potentially groundbreaking land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service, proposing to trade the roughly 4,700 acres it manages on and around Battle Mountain just south of Minturn for an equal amount of acreage on and around Meadow Mountain just north of town.
Anyone who has followed the long-in-the-works plans to build a ski resort on Battle Mountain—a pristine wilderness tract on the east side of Highway 24 that’s nearly as big as Vail Mountain—was stunned by the developers’ chutzpah. In 2008, Minturn residents had voted by a landslide (87 percent, supported by a unanimous council vote) to annex the Battle Mountain property and give Florida real estate tycoon Bobby Ginn the green light to build a gated community of 1,700 luxury vacation homes and a private ski area served by lifts and a fleet of snowcats. In return, Minturn would receive a windfall of $180 million for everything from new sidewalks and a recreation center to capital that the cash-strapped town of 1,100 could use to grow by purchasing surrounding Forest Service land.
But that agreement evaporated when the recession put the brakes on Battle Mountain Resort, and Lubert-Adler, the private investment firm financing the ambitious project, severed ties with Ginn. Fast-forward to June 2015, when representatives from the Crave Group, Lubert-Adler’s Montreal-based asset manager, announced that the firm wanted to abandon the resort plans it inherited from Ginn and instead swap its remote Battle Mountain holdings for Forest Service land closer to town, including Meadow Mountain (Minturn’s primary outdoor recreation area), where it proposed building a residential community of 1,000 affordable and luxury homes. Leaders were stunned.
“It really blindsided the council,” says Shelley Bellm, a 23-year Minturn resident and a 10-year council veteran who voted for the Battle Mountain project in 2008. “They came in really from the very beginning to try to dismantle every agreement we had. My trust level went down very quickly. We said, ‘How dare you?’ ... If they want to be part of our community, they need to listen to our community.”
And the community was outraged over plans to turn its favorite public playground into yet another for-profit housing development riddled with empty vacation homes.
Seven months later, Crave submitted a revised proposal dubbed the South Minturn Exchange. In this version of the land swap, Crave said it would preserve Meadow Mountain as open space and confine new housing to Forest Service land closer to the town’s western and southern boundaries (around Grouse Mountain and Cross Creek, two popular recreation areas) as well as at Bolts Lake, a 600-acre plot that is not in the proposed swap and has already been annexed into town. After boisterously critical opponents packed a town hall meeting in March, Minturn’s council tabled a vote on the swap until after April’s election. At press time, newly elected councilmember Terry Armistead said that due to local opposition—which she has helped organize (including an online petition signed by 555)—no future vote was scheduled.
“It’s pristine, incredible land and a huge wildlife migration corridor. Not just elk—there’s bears, there are eagles living right where they’re proposing to build 600 homes,” says Armistead, who has lived in Minturn for 14 years. “That’s not responsible development. There are quite a few places for Minturn development that don’t consist of primary recreation areas.”
Crave has not submitted its South Minturn Exchange proposal to the Forest Service for consideration, and according to longtime Eagle County local Cliff Thompson, who handles public relations for the developers, it will not unless the town is in favor of it. “We’re kind of betwixt and between,” Thompson says.
Even if nothing happens, talk of the exchange has furthered a question that has hung in the air for decades: What does the future hold for Minturn, the quaint little town wedged between two of the most prestigious luxury resorts in the world? And for that matter, if affordable housing can’t be built here, then where?
“I’m not antidevelopment; I’m not antigrowth,” says Bellm, who works as an administrative assistant in the Town of Vail’s community development office, which is overseeing the planning of an affordable housing community called the Chamonix Neighborhood. “There’s a problem with affordable housing in Eagle County, but it’s not Minturn’s obligation to solve it.”
But if Minturn, one of the valley’s only authentic frontier towns, wants to retain its local flavor, it needs to do something, and fast. According to a town demographics study, just 40 percent of Minturn’s homes were owner occupied in 2010, and that number dwindled to 34 percent last year. With housing in the valley squeezed already, Crave’s proposal offered more options for the local working class. But Armistead says other, more viable affordable housing development opportunities exist elsewhere.
“This isn’t our last pie-in-the-sky hope,” she adds. “I would like to work with Crave because they already own land in our town. Instead of them coming to the plate with, ‘Hey, we’d like to develop Grouse Mountain and Cross Creek,’ why don’t we work together with them to develop land that the whole town can get behind?”
Chagrined, Crave professes to be all ears, given the open letter it mailed to Minturnites after the public forum in March, stating, “If we took one thing from Wednesday night’s meeting, it is that we all still have some listening to do.”