Voters to weigh energy proposal

CRESTED BUTTE – Voters in three mountain counties in November will be asked to approve an innovative program designed to encourage property owners to undertake energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements.

Commissioners in Eagle, Pitkin and Gunnison counties in recent weeks all agreed to put the question on the November ballot. If approved, the counties can collectively issue bonds, making money available for loans. The idea came from Colorado’s Boulder County, where voters last November approved a similar program. In California, the City of Berkeley had earlier introduced a somewhat different program but with the same intent.

The thinking is that people tend to move around a great deal, which is why most are hesitant to spend money to improve energy efficiency or perhaps install a solar thermal collector. The payback on some improvements, such as insulating walls and ceilings, can be rapid. Still, why go into debt to reduce the energy bill if we might sell in five years?

But the program in Boulder County tries to ease past that logic by offering below-market loans that are attached to the property itself, to be paid with the property tax. A government-backed issue of bonds will produce lower interest rates than would otherwise be available.

Even in Vail, the ceiling insulation in some condominiums and townhomes is only R-10. In comparison, energy-savvy experts now recommend at least R-49, and some even insist it’s time to install R-59 or more.

While this program seems uncontroversial, at least some county commissioners worry that two months won’t be enough time to sell it to the public. Especially daunting is the fact that the language, by Colorado law, must say in the opening sentence that the measure will increase the debt of the county.

There is some risk, if perhaps small, that each county in question would absorb debt for individual properties if the programs should fail.

In Gunnison County, there were additional concerns. According to a report in theCrested Butte News, the latest news out of Boulder County is that it’s taking more staff time to administer this program than had been expected. Partly because of this, Commissioner Paula Swenson voted against sending the proposal to voters. If it gets rejected this year because of the hasty preparation, she said, it might not return for four or five years.

Recession hitting hard in Aspen

ASPEN – The economy continues to be wobbly in Aspen, but overall far worse than had been expected last year when city officials drew up their budget.

Bolstered by a $43 million home sale, real estate during July posted a 1.73 percent increase as compared to the same month last year. It was the first uptick after 21 consecutive months of declining sales, according to a report from Land Title Guarantee Co.

For the year, however, real estate sales volume continued to lag the previous year by 29 percent.

In the retail sector, sales tax collections for July were down 17 percent as compared to the same month last year. Citing a city report,The Aspen Timessays that lodging tax collections were down even more, 32 percent for July. That suggests that hoteliers have been cutting their rates.The Aspen Times also reports that the Aspen Chamber Resort Association expects to lose 50 members from its 866-member ranks, resulting in a 4.5 percent decline in revenues.

A report from Don Taylor, the city finance director, notes that the recession continues to be deeper and more widespread than anticipated last year.

City officials a year ago assumed sales tax revenue would be flat, but it was much worse – a correction noted in January. Still, even that projection assumed an improvement by summer that hasn’t happened. Now, Taylor predicts a “tough budget year” for 2010.

Mick Ireland, the Aspen mayor, said boom cycles tend to lead people to devalue frugality, and vacationers stop thinking about value. It’s the responsibility of the city and the resort to create a culture that keeps it sustainable for the long run.

Ski towns fret about drilling

JACKSON, Wyo. – Natural gas drilling is on the periphery of several other resort valleys in the West.

In Wyoming, conservationists have long worried about the

impacts of natural gas drilling on the Wyoming Range. TheJackson Hole News&Guide reverently describes the range as a 100-mile string of low-lying mountains that lacks the mesmerizing jaggedness of the Tetons but remains sublime in its native ordinariness.

Federal land officials have announced the decision not to issue 23 leases for energy extraction originally planned. But energy companies still hold legitimate leases on huge swaths of the range, reports the newspaper. To purchase and retire those leases will require activists to raise millions of dollars, the newspaper notes.

The newspaper also describes an “unlikely coalition” brought together in the interest of preservation. “This speaks to the power of a landscape and how that landscape defines those who enter it.”

In Colorado, another unlikely coalition of ranchers, landowners, governments and public activists have assembled in hopes of replicating the Wyoming story. The land they hope to protect consists of 121,000 acres of public lands in the Thompson and Divide Creek drainages. This is west of Aspen 40 to 50 miles and southwest of Glenwood Springs.

The group, called the Thompson Divide Coalition, hopes to prevent gas producers from developing 81 existing leases.

Bark beetles haunt Beaver Creek

AVON – Bark beetles arrived several years ago at Cordillera, a sprawling, high-end real estate development located in the folds of mountains above the Eagle River Valley about five miles from Beaver Creek.

To thwart the beetles, 23,000 trees have been removed and the logs hauled to other Colorado towns to be sawn into lumber or reconfigured into pellets for wood-burning stoves. Some of the material has also been shipped for use as landscaping material, the resort reports.

In addition to cutting down trees, the resort has sprayed more than 25,000 trees in hopes of saving them.

Forestry efforts to mitigate potential for wildfire were originally expected to last five years, but Bob Egizi, public safety director, now says he expects the work to last indefinitely.

Children used to chart snow loss

PARK CITY, Utah – The base elevation of ski runs at the Park City Mountain Resort is 6,900 feet. From Thanksgiving through Easter of most years, snow can be found there.

But while predictions are dangerous, because climate scientists really don’t know how much snow will fall in future years, one thing is clear: temperatures will rise. And so will the snow line.

To illustrate how much the snow line may rise, a nonprofit group called the Park City Foundation recently assembled children at the top of a lift, at an elevation of 8,200 feet. That’s where the early and late-season snowline will be at mid-century, according to study done several years ago.

The event was called “Save our Snow,” and it is one of several events planned by the group to draw attention to the challenge – but also opportunities to act locally. “We want to raise awareness about climate change and empower people to make changes in their lifestyles,” said Trisha Worthington, the group’s executive director.

Organizers expect 1,200 people for an event in early October. At that time, local kids will be positioned at the various levels on the mountain where the snowline is expected to be in the years 2030, 2050 and 2075.

By the year 2,100, according to some climate scientists, skiing will be impossible because the snowline will be 200 feet higher than the ski mountain’s highest slope.

Luxury hotel delays opening again

VAIL – Opening of the $250 million Four Seasons Resort has been pushed back six months, to summer of 2010.

It’s the latest in a series of postponements for the project, which is located in the middle of Vail. Completion had been targeted for 2008 when ground was broken in 2005.

TheVail Daily notes that construction halted at one point for nine months when a prospective lender backed out because of rising construction projects. In February, says the newspaper, citing construction sources, the original developer defaulted on the project. That left the senior lender, London-based Barclay’s Capital, in the driver’s seat. Barclay’s insisted that the general contractor be replaced. In the latest twist, Barclay’s Capital has officially acquired the development from the original developer, Black Diamond-Vail.

– Allen Best