Mountain News 

Environmentalism or elitism?

By Allen Best

TELLURIDE, Colo. – There was heartburn aplenty in Telluride after a jury ruled that a coveted parcel of undeveloped land at the town’s entrance is worth $50 million.

The town has been moving to condemn the property, to prevent any development. Estimates of the value had ranged from $25 million to $60 million, with representatives of the town arguing for the lower figure.

The case has been in the works for about a decade. Last year, a compromise measure offered to Telluride voters would have allowed the owner of the 570 acres, Neal Blue, the right to develop some high-cost housing. In return, the town could have also built some low-cost affordable housing. But the remaining 91 per cent of land would have been dedicated as open space.

Although the town council, the school board, and the county commissioners all endorsed the compromise, the citizenry overwhelmingly voted against the compromise, or even further negotiations.

Instead, the case was sent to jurors to set a fair price. Eleven jurors convened in Delta, a farming town located about two hours north, and came up with a price of $50 million, close to the $56.8 million value estimated by appraisers employed by Blue.

The town has three months to secure the $50 million. It has $30 million in assets that can be devoted to the acquisition, plus private fundraisers have obtained pledges of $8 million.

Less immediately, the town has legal bills estimated at $7 million. Also, if it does acquire the property, it will need an estimated $15 million for environmental restoration.

The Telluride Watch says the valuation argument pivoted on what might likely appear on the property if developed. The developer’s representatives argued the valley floor property would yield seven-acre lots. Town representatives insisted that the property could be assumed to have only one lot per 35 acres, as Colorado law allows by right.

Much testimony concerned estimated values of the property based on comparable properties at Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Jackson Hole.

However, developer’s lead attorney, Darrel Waas, played to the lower-economic class sympathies of Delta in his closing statement. “It’s a playground, a playground for the super rich,” he said of Telluride. If the town wants the land for a playground, he added, it will have to pay playground prices.

The Telluride Watch offered two very different reactions.

For Rob Schultheis, who has lived for several decades in Telluride, the news from the “jurors from Jerkwater Junction,” as he described Delta, one of many such colourfully unflattering sobriquets, was unsurprising. Delta, he said, looks down its nose at Telluride and its residents.

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