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Mountain News: Zero vacancy rate at two Banff towns

BANFF, Alberta—You think housing is tight in your town, check out Banff. The housing rental vacancy rate has been sitting at zero per cent since 2013. By comparison, the vacancy rate in Calgary, about an hour-and-a-half away, sits at 6.
Banff's housing blues If you think the housing situation is bad in your town, consider Banff, Alta., where the rental vacancy rate has sat at zero per cent since 2013.

BANFF, Alberta—You think housing is tight in your town, check out Banff. The housing rental vacancy rate has been sitting at zero per cent since 2013.

By comparison, the vacancy rate in Calgary, about an hour-and-a-half away, sits at 6.3 per cent. A healthy vacancy rate is between three and five per cent.

At Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park, the housing vacancy has also been at zero to one per cent.

Rising rents are one manifestation of the demand. The average rental rate for a one-bedroom in Banff is $1,505.

"These exorbitant rents are making for a pretty volatile situation in our community: overcrowding, under-maintained housing, huge affordable issues, and rent-bidding is going on," said Sharon Oakley, the housing sustainability manager for the municipality of Banff.

The Rocky Mountain Outlook told some stories that suggest just how things can get wild when housing is so limited. One woman posted an ad on a Facebook buy-and-sell page looking for a place for just a week. She got an offer, but not one she appreciated: a place, if she was willing to sleep with the person. "Sorry im probably being an ass or asking to much," he said in what passes for English on Facebook.

Both Banff and Canmore have been building housing. Banff has a 131-unit housing development nearing completion, with another 38-unit staff housing project coming online. Down-valley at Canmore, a 148-unit purpose-built affordable housing project has been developed and two more projects with about 200 units have been approved. This comes after 60 affordable housing units went online in late 2016.

Conspicuous air pollution smokes up gun protesters

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—When students and others marched in Steamboat Springs in the wake of the latest mass shooting in Florida, several passing pickup trucks spewed out dense, heavy exhaust.

The diesel-burning pickups had been retrofitted to allow what is called "rolling coal." Wikipedia describes it as a form of conspicuous air pollution.

The New York Times, in a 2016 story written from Montrose, Colo., a farming town about halfway between Crested Butte and Telluride, put it this way: "Depending on whom you ask, rolling coal is a juvenile prank, a health hazard, a stand against rampant environmentalism, or a brazen show of American freedom. Coal rollers' frequent targets: walkers, joggers, cyclists, hybrid and Asian cars and even police officers. A popular bumper sticker reads 'Prius Repellent.'"

The Times went on to explain that "rolling coal has origins in truck pulls, in which pickups compete to pull a heavy sled the farthest. Drivers modify their tucks to pump excessive fuel into the engines, increasing horsepower and torque. Stripped of emission controls, the trucks also bellow thick, black smoke."

Drivers spend anywhere from $200 to $5,000 to bypass emissions controls so that they can belch the black smoke.

Colorado, last year, outlawed the practice. Rep. Dan Coran, a Republican from Montrose, was one sponsor, and Rep. Joann Ginal, a Democrat from the university town of Fort Collins, was another.

But passing a law is one thing, enforcing it is another. Steamboat Today reported that police found two of the three drivers. One was a high school student and the second a 20-year-old. Each was fined $100. Unlike speeding, Colorado's law does not take points off an offender's driver's licence.

Ginal told Steamboat Today that the original bill was stripped of its teeth. She told the newspaper she views it as an "infringement of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech. It's really harassment, and to me, a form of bullying."

Is Aspen preaching or doing?

ASPEN, Colo.—Perhaps no ski company executive has used the bully pulpit in Washington D.C. more often than Mike Kaplan of the Aspen Skiing Co. Some would say used it more promiscuously, but that will come later.

Starting his career at Taos before moving to Aspen, he went from snowmaking and ski instructing to the top job at North America's best-known resort, Aspen, by 2006. He was then only 41.

As the Denver Post pointed out, Kaplan and Aspen have been stepping into the spotlight on many testy issues, "becoming arguably the most politically active of Colorado's large outdoor industry businesses."

The company, the Post went on to say, "now champions some of the nation's most divisive topics, from immigration to climate change and LGBTQ rights."

Aspen, of course, draws the notables, both Democrats and Republicans and CEOs of every stripe. That has continued since the election of Donald Trump—also a frequent former visitor—in 2016. Last Christmas, Vice President Mike Pence and his family were there, and other Trump advisors have also vacationed at Aspen and skied at Snowmass.

"A lot of the leaders of the free world come here to ski and come here to spend some downtime," Kaplan told the Post. "So if we can just get a little bit of their mind-space with this perspective, think about the leverage and the power of that—both in the public sector and private sector."

A newspaper columnist formerly from Vail isn't nearly as impressed. "Aspen always was more affected and preachy, oozing earnest authenticity as if they actually believed they were saving humankind, not merely providing skiing and opportunities to be seen for the rich and famous," wrote Don Rogers in the Truckee (Calif.) Sun a few days before the Denver Post story was published.

Rogers, formerly the editor of the Vail Daily and now editor and publisher of several newspapers in the Truckee area, said he hears echoes of Aspen at Squaw Valley, which is about 16 kilometres from Truckee. "Look, look how responsible we are! Preserving winter and the environment for future generations! We care! We really do!"

Squaw is expanding its base village, which has drawn opposition, but is also aggressively pursuing a goal of 100-per-cent renewable electricity.

Rogers suggested gray shades, not black and white, describe what constitutes progress in Truckee and elsewhere.

"Let the battles roll over what most improves life here, but understand it's never all one way, as much as we like to think so in these Trumpian times. Genuine improvement comes in shades of gray, rather than pure black or pure white. Hard choices, not easy answers, and always consequences."

Highest commercial airport loses its commercial flights

TELLURIDE, Colo.—On a mesa just outside of Telluride, across from the ski area, lies the highest commercial airport in the United States. It's at 2,765 metres in elevation.

After a $50-million improvement project that began a decade ago, the airport now has a 2,167-metre-long runway. The reconstruction also levelled the runway, which previously had a drop in the middle. All of this work, subsidized primarily by the Federal Aviation Administration and Colorado state grants, was designed to improve safety and allow use by larger jets.

Even so, the airport accounts for just three per cent of visitors to Telluride who fly commercially. The other 97 per cent fly into Montrose, about 105 kilometres away, then take buses or rent cars to drive into Telluride.

Now, the airport is without commercial service, the second time in several years. Great Lakes Airlines ceased operations last week, citing a shortage of pilots.

Matt Skinner, of the Colorado Flights Alliance, told the Telluride Daily Planet that some flights may return in summer, but full-time service will most likely not return until winter.

For the record, eight of the 10 highest airports in the United States are in Colorado, the highest being Leadville, at 3,028 metres , according to, an aviation website. Leadville has no commercial service, however.

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