SMVC’s answers to these questions were filled with the usual rhetoric heard from developers of a resulting rise in property tax revenues for local government, of increasing economic opportunity for struggling locals, of new housing opportunities for those who could least afford it, of restoration of a land, and of satisfying market demands for prized resort real estate.
My questioning apparently caught the attention of journalist and Telluride Times-Journal columnist Art Goodtimes. He queried if I’d be willing to write for the newspaper on a freelance basis. Short on work and cash at the time, I couldn’t resist. The rest, as they say, is history, as my entree into journalism eventually spawned my co-founding of the Telluride Daily Planet. Over the years, I had the privilege of covering everything and anything having to do with the Valley Floor.
At the time of my hiring, then-publisher of the Times, Scott Brown, drilled into my brain his simple twopart formula for preserving Telluride as we knew it then. Brown’s mantra: “We must save Bear Creek and the Valley Floor from development.” That was it. Save Bear Creek and the Valley Floor, and Telluride will be saved. Fortunately, Bear Creek has been preserved and rescued from the bulldozer and certain ruination from a society seemingly bent on pursuing the almighty greenback at all costs. The Valley Floor, however, is a different story. It continues to be kicked around as the hot potato in a battle between conservation-minded folk on the one hand, and private interests, who would rather cash out and see the land developed, on the other.
But let me digress for a moment. Who is SMVC and who is this notorious and secretive individual, Neal Blue, the owner of the Valley Floor? As a journalist, I researched this question over the years, usually hitting a stone wall. Mr. Blue was always “not available for comment,” as I explained to the paper’s readers. SMVC would always refer comment to its hired gun, corporate president Charlie Haas, an affable individual, who lives in Denver. The rumor on the street has always held that Neal Blue’s motivation in developing the Valley Floor mirrors the tastes of his European wife, who wishes to create an Alpen-esque ambience in this little valley. Accordingly, she envisions beautiful jagged mountains reflected in the placid waters of a lake formed by a dammed up San Miguel River, the valley transformed into an other-worldly state of artificiality. Her idea of a perfect development scheme for the Valley Floor, so the speculation goes, is bringing snow-capped peaks, that otherwise climb into the heavens, down to earth close enough to be touched.
For the record, in the fifteen or so years I spent covering Valley Floor-related issues as a reporter, Neal Blue was nary to be seen. If he’s a community-minded player, as his supporters argue, then where is he? Who is he? He’s certainly not someone to be found at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, flipping flank steaks at the Ski and Snowboard Club booth. And he hasn’t marched on Colorado Ave. during the Fourth of July parade. Nor has he been spotted bidding up lambs, steers and hogs at the San Miguel Basin Fair. Should Mr. Blue be portrayed as a villain in this story? Perhaps. He has stubbornly held fast to his development-at-all-costs position, never once choosing the road to conservation.
Most recently, I turned to the Internet for help in finding out just who this person is. Whatever his detractors say, Neal Blue has had an illustrious, ambitious career. A ’57 graduate of Yale University, Blue served in the U.S. Air Force and once piloted a small single-engine aircraft around South America as a correspondent for the nowdefunct Life magazine.
He is chairman and CEO of General Atomics, a San Diego-based company formed in 1955 as a division of General Dynamics and later owned by the big oil giants, Gulf Oil and Chevron. The Blue family acquired GA in 1986, about the same year they were devising development plans for the Valley Floor. The company was conceived, according to GA propaganda, “for the purpose of harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind.” The company’s website offers a heady list of pursuits, but says nothing about real estate development or the Valley Floor. Instead, one finds the company has diversified into such things as nuclear waste management and an aeronautical systems division that “manufactures remotely operated aircraft used for various commercial and military applications around the world.” Translated into layman’s terms, that means GA manufactures pilotless drones, the types used in Iraq and Afghanistan and before that, Bosnia. These drones go by the names Predator and GNAT systems, ALTUS, and Prowler II.
It isn’t until one pulls up a profile of Neal Blue himself that one gets a hint of where real estate development fits. Buried within his web page is mention of Cordillera Corp., a Denver-based company of which Neal Blue is cofounder and chairman. Cordillera, according to the website, has investments in real estate, agriculture, natural gas distribution utilities, and oil and gas. Does summering cows on the Valley Floor to gain the favorable agricultural land status and thereby avoid the tax man constitute “agriculture”? Enough on Neal Blue, though it’s interesting to know what Telluride’s preservationists are up against. The Valley Floor’s recent history has had its own share of drama and spotlight.
Photo by John Richter
The newsroom at the old Telluride Times-Journal was all aflutter one early spring morning in 1993. Not only was it snowing hard outside, making the skiing phenomenal for the late-season powder hound, but also the news was coming in fast and furious. When the news is handed to a reporter on a silver platter, it’s kind of like hitting a big strike while deep sea fishing, after miles and miles of chugging along. At the time, I was covering the county beat for the paper, and anything having to do with SMVC would ultimately find its way to my keyboard and then be published in the newspaper.
Following its 1985 development presentation, SMVC, save for a few instances when the Valley Cows ventured out on the Colorado 145 Spur for a photo shoot, was not making headlines. Apparently, there were still too many “dirtbags” around the region ready to pounce on any and all development schemes the company may have presented. Frustration may have set in at SMVC headquarters, however, during that infamous windy spring of 1993.
Somehow, someway and for some reason, on April Fool’s Day an internal planning document, circulated to the highest echelon in SMVC’s offices, was mysteriously faxed to the County’s planning department, supposedly sent by disgruntled SMVC employee Kevin Scanlan. The same document was also anonymously faxed to the newspaper. The fax allegedly disclosed SMVC’s plan to proceed with their Valley Floor development via unethical and illegal means. The plan, outlined in convincing detail, called for draining the Valley Floor’s wetlands under the guise of “agriculture,” acquiring the Times-Journalweekly newspaper to try to influence public decision-making, and other shenanigans.
“What in the world is this all about?” I thought and followed up with phone calls to SMVC headquarters as well as to Town leaders, county officials and the like, looking for answers. I worked the story hard. I knew KOTO would break the news that same evening, but we’d be out with it the next morning, and I’d have more time to work on the story than would KOTO News Director Jon Kovash. The story, as well as numerous follow-ups, caused a predicted stir. SMVC claimed the fax was an April Fool’s hoax. But no one knows for sure.
I have always kept a finger on the development pulse by perusing the legal notices in the back of the paper. Here, one finds tidbits of information, clues that perhaps warrant investigation. Take for instance the day I discovered SMVC had a huge water proposal before the district water court. The fine print detailed how SMVC sought to create a series of dams and reservoirs for a planned golf course on the south side of the highway. I had uncovered a huge piece of the development puzzle for the Valley Floor. Off I went, pursuing the story. I got an environmental perspective on what dams for the undammed river might mean. Dams on the Valley Floor, according to the experts, would affect the aquifer and the river’s fragile ecosystem, all the way to the river’s confluence with the Dolores River, near the Utah line. Then I called the mayor of Telluride at the time, the late Peter Spencer. He too had seen the legal notice in the paper and was appalled. He was furious that SMVC would operate behind the scenes, not working with any regional entity in devising development schemes for its huge property. “Why didn’t they let us know about this ahead of time?” he asked. “Here we’ve been working on updating our master plan for the Telluride Valley, and they have a huge piece of the pie that they’ve obviously kept secret.” He was upset that, on the one hand, SMVC publicly stated, “We have no plans for the Valley Floor,” and that then, just as quickly, out of the other side of their mouths, they filed this sophisticated and well-thought-out water plan. Spencer facetiously dubbed the scheme “Lago del Blue.” In news circles, that name has stuck ever since.
In 1998, SMVC amended its water rights application for the Valley Floor, asking for the creation of two lakes instead of four. It also sought water rights for a golf course. The results of this water fight are still pending, but they could have disastrous consequences for the Valley Floor conservation effort. The water plan closely mirrors SMVC’s 6,500-person development scheme presented in the mid-’80s. It-does pay to read the fine print.
In another instance of the still-evolving story on the Valley Floor, the Telluride Town Council, after months of executive sessions, scheduled a final public vote on an agreement hashed out between it and SMVC over a piece of land known as “The Wedge.” This was a seemingly inconsequential piece of U.S. Forest Service land, adjacent to Boomerang Road on the valley’s cold, north-facing slope. SMVC wanted The Wedge in anticipation of a future transportation link between the Valley Floor and Mountain Village. The Town rankled SMVC when it also applied to trade land for The Wedge. On the day of the vote to ratify the hardfought final agreement between the parties, Telluride council members sabotaged the negotiation. “We need to go back to the drawing board on this,” explained one councilmember. “There are too many loose ends. SMVC gets too many rights.” SMVC officials were appalled. That single incident, it occurs to me now, caused SMVC to walk away from the table and never look back. The aptly named Wedge served to drive a deep, if not irreparable, split between SMVC and the Town of Telluride, and its failed negotiation was one of Town government’s downfalls.
Craig Ferguson, director of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, walked into my cubicle at the Daily Planetone late-winter day several years ago. His face showed concern. Only a couple years earlier, Ferguson had taken over the festival after the sudden and sad passing of the festival’s key organizer, Fred Shellman. Formerly the festival’s attorney, Ferguson wasn’t used to the logistical nightmares of trying to put on an event for 10,000 people for four days in a town 65 miles from the nearest stoplight. He wrinkled his brow as he explained his predicament.
“Tony,” he began, “you know how the town and SMVC aren’t getting along. Well, I’m having the hardest time this year in trying to get this festival off the ground. SMVC’s threatening to pull the camping and the parking from me on the Valley Floor because of the disputes. Without the parking and camping, I can’t pull this off. This festival means too much to us, and it means too much to the town. I need your help.”
Ferguson rightfully followed his instincts by coming to the newspaper to plead his case. How else to share his plight and let it be known to the world? The community— especially the business community, in addition to music lovers everywhere—needed to know on what perilous ground the Bluegrass Festival stood.
The Bluegrass Festival had become a pawn in the battle between the Town of Telluride and SMVC. The corporation obviously realized the festival’s importance to the town’s summer economy, being the first major boost to cash registers in Telluride following the slump of spring off-season. Festival promoters needed the Valley Floor for camping and parking. SMVC apparently figured that if it could threaten the town economically, it could gain its way with development. Some capitalists would call that the art of “negotiation”; I think it borders on extortion. Eventually, the festival was left high and dry, but through its own creativity and resourcefulness, the Town figured out how to accommodate Bluegrass visitors.
In June 2000, SMVC announced its intention to seek annexation of the Valley Floor into Mountain Village boundaries and to pursue development with that town. SMVC also negotiated a development scheme with regional representatives sitting on an ad hoc advisory planning committee. Trumpeted as the “Son of TREPAC” but never quite worthy of that status, the committee would have granted SMVC many of its original development ideas, a golf course and reservoir network among them. Mountain Village’s Town Council never signed the Valley Floor pre-annexation documents, however, but the threat of annexation to the Mountain Village finally caused the Town to enter into a litigious phase of relations, namely, condemnation.
Later that summer, many of us stood, arm in arm, hand in hand, forming a long human chain at the historic “Rally for the Valley.” Citizens and others concerned about the Valley Floor’s future gathered at the San Miguel County Courthouse for a planned march to the Texaco. The chain was made up of folks of all ages, colors, social and economic levels. Everyone was there for one purpose: to show public support for preserving this jewel. The rally was peaceful, although tempers flared on more than one occasion as several folks, who seemingly could care less about conservation, drove by in their fancy Saabs, Range Rovers and BMWs, sternly staring straight ahead or speaking on cell phones. “Honk if you’re in favor of preservation,” yelled many of the demonstrators.
Several real estate agents appeared in the rally, as did numerous businessmen and women who believe preservation of the Valley Floor is the future of Telluride, not its development. Nevertheless, naysayers questioned the representation of those forming the human chain. “How many of those people are taxpayers in Telluride?” they asked, oblivious to the fact that this land is a treasure, worthy of a fight among all people.
Photo by John Richter
Playing hardball, as if corporate intimidation will derail the passions of those wanting to preserve the land, SMVC’s tit-for-tat antics continued. Blaming the condemnation imbroglio, SMVC has reneged on a pledge made to state and federal officials to clean up toxic tailings piles on wetlands within the Valley Floor. SMVC has also closed off all public access to their land, including Bluegrass parking and camping, hang glider landings, river trail recreational access and crosscountry skiing.
One night during the winter of 2002, some renegades fired up snowmobiles and went for a joyride on the Valley Floor, pulling behind them cross-country track grooming equipment. They prepared the snowfields for a cross-country ski race the next day, which went off without a hitch, until the heat caught up with the handful of racers on lap two and cited some of the contestants for trespassing.
The tussle over the Valley Floor has continued, unabated. The only difference, since Scott Brown’s prophetic words, is that the land’s price tag has gone up and up and up. In 2003, appraisals valued the property at $22 million or $48 million, depending on whose side you’re on. Is buying the Valley Floor out of reach? Not for this community. Our local environmental organization, Sheep Mountain Alliance, is drumming up support for its preservation efforts from conservationists around the country, who have already pledged over $5 million. Telluride is also stocked with a chestful of money in its open space acquisition account. In 2002, a ballot question seeking formal authorization for the Telluride Town Council to proceed with condemnation of the south side of the Valley Floor overwhelmingly won voter approval. Voters strongly feel that through condemnation they can protect the parcel’s open space qualities and keep the property away from the bulldozer. In keeping with Telluride tradition, the vote on condemnation became heated during the course of the election. Most ballot questions are hotly contested. But after all the ballots were counted, several of the more vociferous opponents and supporters put down their arms on election night and put aside for the time being their philosophic differences. They were seen, sitting side by side, in the New Sheridan Bar, the winners buying the losers cocktails. The Town filed for condemnation of the Valley Floor to preserve it as open space in March 2004.
The latest and perhaps most serious potshot is SMVC’s successful lobbying of the Colorado state legislature to pass an amendment to House Bill 1203. H. B. 1203 was introduced with the intention of curbing condemnation abuses in urban renewal settings, such as a government’s condemning property and then selling it wholesale to private developers. But the “Telluride Amendment,” as it was referred to, has conspicuously different aims: It makes it illegal for municipalities to condemn land outside municipal boundaries for open space. Being adjacent to, but outside, town boundaries, the Valley Floor (and property outside of any other Colorado municipality), then, according to the law, is off-limits. Telluride, San Miguel County Commissioners, the Colorado Municipal League and citizens groups statewide fought the amendment, which nonetheless passed easily in the House and finally by one vote in the Senate. Although the bill wasn’t signed into law until June 2004, the amendment was made retroactive to January 2004, making Telluride’s case applicable. That municipal governments and their home rule charters are being overridden to suit the wishes of a private interest and its investment speaks volumes about the sad state of Colorado’s General Assembly. On the day Governor Bill Owens signed H. B. 1203 into law, SMVC asked the district court to dismiss Telluride’s condemnation case on the basis of the new law.
In October 2004, District Court Judge Charles Greenacre rejected SMVC’s arguments and, in a wellarticulated opinion, offered the rationale for dismissing H. B. 1203’s application to the Valley Floor case, based on statutory interpretation and precedent-setting Colorado court decisions. Judge Greenacre held that a home rule municipality’s right to pursue eminent domain outside of its boundaries is granted by the Constitution and cannot be denied by a state statute. Since then, the condemnation case appears to be going ahead. Judge Greenacre has required that both parties attempt to come to an agreement via mediation; otherwise, the case will be settled in a valuation trial scheduled for January 2006. Recent appraisals of the property’s fair market value continue to differ substantially, Telluride’s coming in at $26 million and SMVC’s at $51 million.
When I first came to Telluride, as a teenager, in the mid-70s, I was immediately taken by the town and its surroundings. The townsfolk then impressed me as an intelligent lot, driven by a zeal to stand apart from the larger, materialistic, consumption- and money-dominated society. The value systems of the hippie newcomers then reflected the simplicity of an earlier time, and life was lived with gusto. Residents strove to minimize their impacts on fragile planet Earth. The creativity and ambition that created an alternative society in this corner of the world was contagious and exciting. That was the era of the founding of the Free Box, the establishment of KOTO-Radio, the inauguration of many of the town’s existing festivals, and the establishment of Town Park.
The small, isolated town of Telluride was special at that time, surrounded by vast wilderness on all sides. One could bike to Alta Lakes, from Telluride, via a four-wheel-drive road called Boomerang, passing gorgeous beaver ponds where the Mountain Village core now sits; from Society Turn, Last Dollar Road was a rough and primitive two-track. Locals were, for the most part, bucking some of life’s more commonplace activities, such as sitting still and watching television. Spending capital dollars on asphalt and sidewalks was not on the horizon, and, in fact, was publicly denounced. Tidy homes with million-dollar landscaping designs were frowned upon. Skiing and its ability to satisfy a hungry soul were the main draw for many, who didn’t hesitate to put up signs on shop windows that noticed, “Closed. Gone skiing.”
This particular era was uniquely an opportune time to create a new town, with a new economy, and a new life for the existing inhabitants and the newcomers who followed. Telluride was in a transition mode. Even though the mine was still operating in the ’70s, it was on a definite decline, as mining was hitting the skids. Many of the new inhabitants sought sanctuary in Telluride, a home away from home where many of life’s troubles, such as the waning war in Vietnam, could be forgotten. Telluride became anti-establishment. The development of a new ski area in these beautiful mountains would bring the economic stability necessary for long-term viability. The festivals would fill in the voids left in the summer season.
Of course, Telluride has changed dramatically over the years. Now, economic considerations are primarily what drive many of the new shop owners and marketers. Skiing, for many, is an afterthought. Rarely are stores closed, except during off-season. The streets have been paved and sidewalks built, tarnishing Telluride’s earlier rough and natural look and feel. Most of the old homes built during the mining era have been transformed into modern starter castles for the next wave of new arrivals who apparently refuse to let go of the urban values with which they came. Heated driveways and sidewalks and homes with carports are the norm. Modernities are in; inconvenience is out. Condominiums now rise from lots that were previously vacant, as do many new faux Victorian commercial buildings on main street. Of course, the Mountain Village now towers over the town, visible on the Coonskin ridge that not too long ago demarcated the line of wilderness beyond. Sparkling clean luxury cars and SUVs cruise main street, many of them driven by members of the overabundant real estate agent tribe, who spend their time trolling for moneyed clients who appreciate the new, more manicured image. Water restrictions now focus not on boil orders to make water potable, but on limiting car washing, sidewalk and garage cleaning, hot tub filling, all luxuries of a luxurious resort town. Meanwhile, younger and more idealistic locals, struggling to make ends meet in the inflationary climate created by a resort- and construction- dominated economy, scurry from one job to the other, never really getting ahead, but fighting to stay in a land that is still considered paradise because of its almost unfathomable beauty.
The Valley Floor, then, represents a last stand for many: A last stand in the fight to maintain some of Telluride’s more traditional, if not unorthodox, values. The Valley Floor is the incomparable pastoral gateway to the historic mountain community called Telluride. It’s what separates the real world from paradise. If the gorgeous Valley Floor cannot be maintained as open space, so that its ecological benefits to the entire San Miguel River ecosystem are protected, then what on planet Earth is worth preserving? If the battle to preserve the Valley Floor fails, won’t we also fail at preserving and protecting many of the planet’s other valuable ecosystems? If the preservation effort fails, where does the human race draw the line on what is too sacrosanct for development? Are we not doomed as a civilization?
At the same time, the idealists among us still hold out hope that America’s vast wealth, represented in the case of the Valley Floor by an exceedingly profitable and wealthy SMVC and General Atomics, can shine forth and set an example that enough is enough. Perhaps naively, we simply wish that corporations, too, would play a major role in preserving the Rocky Mountain landscape, as opposed to following suit with plans for another stale and destructive subdivision-style development. Why couldn’t the legacy left behind by Mr. Blue here in the Telluride Valley be one of conservation, with a keen eye to the future? Or more to the point, how much money does a capitalist need in order to consider himself or herself “successful”? The mechanisms are in place now, whether through conservation easements or tax write-offs, for corporations to hunker down in the trenches and join the rest of us in the front lines for the battle of conservation and restoration.
Part of this wish is to also have the real estate and development community join in this effort to make a positive contribution to the continued good health of the region. Why shouldn’t this important sector of the community, which is dependent on selling quality of life, take it upon themselves to protect a portion of the assets that have helped reward them with vast amounts of wealth?
A failure at protecting the Valley Floor from the bulldozer will leave many with a feeling of hopelessness and deep resentment and disappointment. Cynicism, already evident by those defeated in previous development battles fought over airports, runway lengths, population densities, ski area expansions, logging, and the like will be even more commonplace, as disillusioned Telluriders ponder their next moves. These are my thoughts as Telluride continues its battle to preserve the Valley Floor. Am I idealistic? Yes, but Telluride’s beauty cannot help but stimulate hope for a better world.
I can empathize with supporters of development on the Valley Floor who have argued that, out of principle, SMVC has, as a property owner, the “right” to develop the property as it pleases. But this laissez faire approach to community and development has a fatal flaw: it smacks against Libertarian—and basic American— values. That is, one has a right to live a life as one chooses, as long as one’s actions do not harm others. If SMVC carries out its plans, the town of Telluride suffers, as do all downstream water users and the San Miguel River’s ecosystem. The development schemes are scaled largely out of proportion to the land’s carrying capacity. The development proposals, as presented to-date, are unsustainable, energy wasting and natural resource destroying. The plans as presented harmfully affect everything from water and air quality, to transportation, in addition to the social and economic structure of Telluride. Development of the Valley Floor will destroy Telluride’s feel as an historic old mining community. The charm of former and beautiful historic mining towns, such as Park City, Breckenridge, and Aspen, has been obliterated by the newness of development.
It’s hard to distinguish their historic districts from the numerous mega-homes and subdivisions. It’s time for a new preservation paradigm. The Valley Floor can become the showpiece for the new era of conservation, especially among Rocky Mountain towns all struggling with similar issues.
What SMVC has underestimated is the intrinsic value of its own land, not in terms of development potential, but in terms of its environmental importance. And, as the nation and developing world move dangerously closer to destroying the planet’s fragile ecosystem, SMVC has also underestimated the resolve of this nation’s more enlightened citizens to take a stand for preserving those things that are vitally important.
In the end, doing the right thing will prevail. Another mega-resort in the western San Juan Mountains is just not meant to be.