The Telluride Valley Floor:
A Campaign for Preservation
Photo by Jack Pera
A Signature Landscape
Telluride is a National Historic Landmark District located at the end of a glacially
formed box canyon, and the Valley Floor is its gateway, a landscape that distinguishes
this mountain resort town from others. To access the Town of Telluride, one crosses the
Valley Floor: three miles of mountain meadows clustered with cottonwoods, evergreens and
wetlands. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said in 2003, “It’s a magical moment when you hit
that field, driving from Montrose or the Telluride airport."
Formerly the summer hunting and camping grounds of the Ute Indians, and later the
site of San Miguel City, placer mining and dairy farms, the south side of the Valley
Floor has seen only cattle grazing since the 1950s. Residential development currently
lines the north side of the highway leading to Telluride, while the south side—a parcel
of approximately 570 acres—remains open space. The National Trust for Historic
Preservation, the nation’s largest preservation organization, placed the Valley Floor
on its list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places" in 2000.
Although mining and agriculture have impacted this landscape, studies show that
it has retained its biological integrity and diversity. This land lies in a deer,
elk and Canada lynx migration corridor. A scientific study conducted by Sustainable
Ecosystems Institute in 2002 yielded at least five new species and a new genus of
insects and confirmed the valley as habitat for the endangered southwestern willow
Aquatic ecosystems are the most valuable to native species and the richest
in species diversity, supporting a host of amphibians, resident and migrating birds, fish, mammals,
insects and plants. In the Southern Rockies, biologists have found that wetlands and riparian
ecosystems support 80 percent of vertebrates. The Valley Floor comprises the largest complex of
riparian, wetland and fen (ancient peat wetlands) ecosystems in the San Miguel Watershed. These
wetlands purify the San Miguel River’s water by filtering sediment and pollutants; they store water
to supply the river during the low runoff periods of fall and winter; and they mitigate down-valley
flooding. One might say, ecologically, that the Valley Floor is the heart of the San Miguel River.
A Citizen's Initiative to Preserve
the South Side as Open Space
In 2002, a citizen-initiated ordinance was presented to the voters of Telluride. It asked the Telluride
Town Council to pursue eminent domain—a government’s right to acquire private property for “public use”
for “just compensation,” also known as condemnation. The ordinance, which passed by a 63 percent majority,
stipulates that upon acquisition of the south-side property, Telluride will place the land under a
conservation easement to be preserved as open space in perpetuity.
The Colorado Constitution grants local governments the power of eminent domain. Municipalities such as Boulder,
Colorado, have resorted to eminent domain to acquire open space, as did New York City to acquire the land for Central
Park. In March 2004, Telluride filed a petition for condemnation.
History of the Case
Soon after, the landowner of the Valley Floor, San Miguel Valley Corporation (SMVC) lobbied Colorado’s legislative
bodies to add an amendment to an eminent domain bill. House Bill 1203 was introduced with the intent to curb
condemnation abuses in urban renewal settings, such as when a government condemns property and then sells it to
private developers. But the “Telluride Amendment” had different aims: to make it illegal for municipalities to
condemn land outside its boundaries for open space. As such, the Telluride Amendment would have effectively
prohibited the acquisition of the Valley Floor because the land is located adjacent to, but outside, town
boundaries. It passed by one vote in the senate. Although the bill was not signed into law until June 2004, the
amendment was retroactive to January 2004, making Telluride’s case applicable. On the day Governor Bill Owens
signed H.B. 1203 into law, SMVC appealed to the district court to dismiss Telluride’s condemnation case.
In October 2004, a district court judge rejected SMVC’s arguments, dismissing H.B. 1203’s application
to the Valley Floor
case, based on statutory interpretation and precedent-setting Colorado court decisions. The judge held that a home-rule
municipality’s right to pursue eminent domain outside of its boundaries is granted by the Colorado Constitution and cannot
be denied by act of the legislature. Furthermore, he required that both parties attempt to come to an agreement via mediation.
Otherwise, the case would be settled in a valuation trial.
Mediation led to a new development plan, which called for a residential pod on the south side and
annexation and development
of SMVC’s surrounding acres. After giving this plan serious consideration, the Telluride voters again elected for condemnation.
The valuation trial was rescheduled for February 2007 with the land value frozen in January 2006.
After being presented with evidence that supported both Telluride’s $26 million appraisal and SMVC’s
$50 million appraisal, a
jury of Delta County residents declared the value of the land to be $50 million, and the judge ordered the Town to deposit the
funds by mid-May.
Funding for Acquisition and Restoration
A recent Telluride Visitors Center survey found that over 96 percent of visitors rated the scenic beauty of
the region as paramount to enjoying their trip to Telluride. Telluride has a long history of support for
acquisition and preservation of open space. In 1993, town council created the Open Space Commission and
residents voted to set aside 20 percent of the Town’s annual unencumbered tax revenues to be used for
acquisition, management and preservation of open lands. An Open Space Commission survey found that
preserving the Valley Floor parcel has been, and continues to be, the community’s number-one open space
In November 2002, Telluride voters approved $10 million in open space bonding capacity for the acquisition of the
Valley Floor. In November 2007, voters approved an additional $10 million. At the time of the valuation, Telluride
had $25 million in open space funds and voter-authorized open space bonding available to purchase the Valley Floor.
In addition, more than 130 individuals had offered personal support for the acquisition with pledges and donations
exceeding $8 million. At the time of the $50 million valuation the total funding available for acquisition was
approximately $33 million.
Valley Floor Preservation Partners
Valley Floor Preservation Partners (VFPP), a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, was established in March
2006 to support the town’s acquisition and preservation efforts and to launch a final fundraising and
education campaign. VFPP was formed as a partnership of the Town of Telluride, Sheep Mountain Alliance,
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Telluride Institute and regional citizens, who joined
together to move the acquisition effort forward. VFPP’s task in February 2007 was to raise the remaining
$17 million by mid-May.
After a true grassroots community campaign, VFPP raised the funds necessary for the $50 million—plus interest—deposit
with the court. Nevertheless, in April 2007, SMVC appealed the district court’s decision to allow the Town’s
condemnation to proceed after HB 1203. They appealed the issue directly to the Colorado Supreme Court, and oral
arguments for the case were heard on January 22, 2008. A ruling is anticipated in the spring of 2008.
The Future of the Valley Floor: Preservation
Telluride’s condemnation ordinance stipulates that the Valley Floor property will be preserved as open
space in perpetuity through a conservation easement administered and retained under an appropriate land
conservation entity. The conservation easement will prohibit the placement of permanent structures and
other activities that may degrade the property’s conservation values. It will provide for the
restoration of the property’s natural features and ensure specific recreational and educational uses,
such as nature walks and areas for hiking, bicycling, running, cross-country skiing, hangglider and
paraglider landings, temporary camping, and other public park purposes not requiring improvement of the land.
While the preservation of the Valley Floor is valued as a means to protect its natural resources, wildlife habitat
and open space, we must also understand its value as an educational resource. The Valley Floor can be preserved as
a living classroom, a rare and valuable tool for the scientific education of local children and adults and many
more who come to Telluride because of its unique and natural setting. Connecting people with nature will promote
increased environmental literacy among our community's citizens and guests and will help create a culture that
values the land in the future.
The overriding vision for the Valley Floor is to preserve its scenic views, protect and restore its natural
resources, and provide appropriate recreational and educational uses. VFPP formed as a coalition of key
community entities whose shared mission to unite the community around what had historically been a contentious
issue enabled the success of this unprecedented conservation campaign. As an extended community, we all wish
to protect and preserve Telluride’s remarkable physical character, historic integrity, and quality of life
for generations to come.
Photo by Ben Knight