Keystone resort residents seek self-rule as Colorados newest town

After 50 years as an unincorporated mountain resort, Keystone residents are trying to become Colorado’s newest town — taking on the challenges of democratic self-rule.

They filed a petition in October in state court with more than the required number of signatures and are preparing for a special election early next year. It’s a matter of freedom, residents say, to focus on meeting human needs: school bus stops for kids, safety for visitors as hazardous oil and gas tankers from Loveland Pass rocket through, and power to shape their own future.

“Keystone wants to become a real town and take control of its destiny,” said Ken Riley, a retired Air Force colonel and aerospace industry executive leading an 11-member committee coordinating the campaign.

“And it’s important that the community have an identity. We’ve grown by 40% over the past five years in full-time population. It’s time to recognize we are indeed a community. … a family-friendly resort community,” Riley said.

But the company that controls much of Keystone, and owns 575 acres — Vail Resorts, with global revenues around $2.5 billion — hasn’t taken a position.

Back in 1996, Keystone residents made their first push to incorporate. Vail Resorts opposed it. Other Colorado mountain resorts, including Crested Butte, Telluride, Vail, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, Aspen, Winter Park, are incorporated as towns — and sometimes bog in irksome debate over matters such as whether to build worker housing on bighorn sheep habitat.

Since that failed first push, Summit County officials have governed Keystone, which sends tax revenues in return for services such as road maintenance and police protection against crime.

Now if residents vote to incorporate, Keystone (population 1,298, surging to 25,000 at peak ski time) would handle more from liquor licenses to health services as the fourth most populated town in the county — behind Breckenridge (pop. 5,024), Silverthorne (pop. 4,677) and Frisco (pop. 2,903), and ahead of Dillon (pop. 1,057) and Blue River (pop. 884).

A Keystone co-founder, developer Bill Bergman, 98, fought against the first push to become a town — he saw Vail, another planned resort which incorporated in 1966, where “they couldn’t hardly do anything without a lot of trouble” — but now says he’s on board.

“It is necessary. We have a lot of things we can do ourselves and not have to depend on the county. Once you’re incorporated, you can keep the taxes. We just want to solve our own problems ourselves,” Bergman said, adding that he doesn’t expect Keystone to grow bigger.

“We will know how to do it,” he said. “I hope it won’t become a communist community.”

Small towns are tough to manage, and this would change Keystone, “which has roots in being a company town that was purely a resort and now, years down the road, is more than that,” said former Eagle mayor and county commissioner Jon Stavney, director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, an association of leaders from 30 towns, who received calls from Keystone residents seeking guidance.

Keystone residents’ petition to incorporate as a home rule town reflects a changing political landscape in western Colorado as more newcomers migrate from cities and, instead of just visiting, stay “as residents” interested in civic affairs, Stavney said. And Colorado mountain towns widely are “rethinking their relationship to tourism,” driving a trend toward “destination management” instead of “destination marketing,” even though economies depend on resort revenues, he said.

“What Keystone residents stand to gain is some ability to assess what is important to them locally, and then go to this bigger entity (Vail Resorts) as a town, rather than as a collection of individuals.”

“This is long overdue”

Keystone would cover 1,177 acres (5.1 square miles) along the Snake River, with total property value topping $2.5 billion, surrounded on three sides by national forest, where Vail Resorts manages ski slopes under a federal permit. Two Vail-owned golf courses covering 455 acres, and company-owned buildings on 120 acres, aren’t part of Keystone residents’ proposal. “We asked Vail Resorts,” Riley said. “They were silent. So we proceeded without them.”

Keystone voters in subsequent elections next year would have to draft and approve a town charter detailing the structure and powers of their local government.

This would be Colorado’s first new town since 2007, when Castle Pines incorporated in south metro Denver, following Centennial in 2001 and Mountain Village (in San Miguel County) in 1995. State records list 272 active incorporated municipalities, including 197 towns, 73 cities and two combined city-county entities. Colorado’s population has increased from 2.2 million in 1970 to more than 5.8 million.

Keystone leaders calculated an elected town council could maintain current services without imposing higher taxes, at least not right away. They’d rely on $4 million to $5 million in annual revenues that otherwise would be sent to Summit County. They want to shorten emergency vehicle response times to less than 30 minutes if possible by contracting for county assets that would be dedicated to serving Keystone.

“This is long overdue,” said Valerie Thisted, 45, a former Denver social worker who grew up in Carbondale and has lived in Keystone for 15 years.

She recalled her frustration trying to ensure a safe bus stop for her children, waiting for responses from phone messages left with county and school district authorities.

“We’ve been powerless, watching things happen to us and around us. As a parent, I am desperate for this measure to pass because, without it, I’m not sure there will be a community left,” Thisted said. “We want a return on our investment. We represent many different walks of life and beliefs but recognize the need to become a town in order to hold big business and our county government more accountable. We have a chance now to start from the ground up, a blank slate, self-governing at its purest form.”

“More balanced community”

Keystoner Mountain Coffee Shop owner Sarah Keel, one of 22 volunteers who gathered signatures from property owners registered to vote, sees incorporation as a home rule town as helpful for turning a “grab and go” business into “a spot where people can hang out.”

Looking for open space conducive to family activities on days off with her husband and 4-year-old son often requires leaving Keystone, Keel said. “It’s time to play catch up and become a more balanced community.”

Vail Resorts officials declined to discuss Keystone’s push to incorporate. A corporate spokeswoman asked to know a reporter’s sources, saying this was standard practice to understand a story angle and who might be in it.

Vail Resorts issued the following unattributed statement:

“Keystone Resort appreciates the skilled leadership of the Summit County Commissioners and staff, which has been particularly important for our community, our employees, and our guests throughout the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recovery. We look forward to continuing to engage in the community discussion about the potential benefits, risks, and costs of forming a new municipal government.”

Legally, “the decision to incorporate is up to the 900 registered voters in Keystone. It is not up to Vail Resorts,” Riley said. Polling conducted in April found 70% support for becoming a town, with 15% undecided and 15% opposed, he said.

Those opposed to becoming a town say Keystone inevitably would have to raise taxes to support local government. They contend local government could become burdensome.

Resort’s beginnings and changing times

Developers built Keystone around 1972, led by Bergman, a former World War II B-24 bomber pilot, and the late Max Dercum, a champion skier and forestry professor who had amassed mining claims in the area. They met at a New Year’s party, hatched the idea and shook hands that night.

 

Keystone draws more than 1 million visitors a year for activities including ice skating on a lake, cross-country skiing, golf, presentations in a $10 million conference center, and skiing on slopes spanning 3,149 acres as high as 12,408 feet above sea level with a 3,128 feet vertical rise. Keystone pioneered artificial snow-making, boosting snow consistency. Bergman said that, inspired by Walt Disney, he always prioritized making Keystone friendly for families — “families from all over the world.”

For decades, workers here typically were single people keen on skiing. Now as more residents are in families living in Keystone year-round, affordable housing has emerged as a challenge. Western Colorado residents often cannot afford to live in the towns where they work.

“Overall,” becoming a town “would be a good thing,” said Shervin Rashidi, 54, a refugee from Iran who has lived in Keystone since 1989. He started work at a restaurant and now owns a real estate company. He worked for Keystone’s previous corporate owner, Ralston-Purina Corp., and helped guide a transition through ownership by Intrawest to Vail Resorts, before running a local merchants association for 19 years.

Roadway safety

The most urgent issue residents face is probably safety along Highway 6 (Loveland Pass), a federal highway managed by the Colorado Department of Transportation, where trucks hauling hazardous fuels roll through Keystone at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, Rashidi said.

He witnessed a crash in the 1990s that led to a fiery explosion. Collisions have caused at least two fatalities.

“I fear for our visitors. We have no sidewalks on the highway. We have different areas that are not connected. Vail does a great job trying to provide transportation. But every winter you see skiers on the side of this highway with their stuff, and slush everywhere, and trucks flying by. It is just not a good situation,” he said.

“Should Vail Resorts, a for-profit mountain resort operator, be in the business of dealing with underpasses, overpasses and sidewalks? That’s a state, county and township kind of thing. We have a lot of skiers in our corner of the world. This creates a lot of traffic. At times, you cannot move on that highway. …..”

“We’re just looking to have a local voice.”

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