The Valley Floor was never merely a piece of land. It was never real estate to be bought or sold, or developed or preserved. It has long been all of that and much more: a potent symbol.
A flat expanse set among mountains, at the entrance to a historic town and at the base of a ski resort, the Valley Floor has been a field of dreams upon which various parties have inscribed their own idea of what Telluride was, is and should be. And so it was probably inevitable that this singular place is still being fought over, even now that it’s owned by the town. It was never just the uses that might occur on the Valley Floor that inspired both fear and excitement, but also its secret meanings. Now that the property is publicly owned, the battles over this sanctified land could be even more vicious and even more freighted with mysterious purpose than they were before.
Before, the battle lines were relatively easy to draw. On the one side there was Neal Blue, easily caricatured as a ruthless capitalist, for whom the Valley Floor was a symbol of private property. It seemed as if, to Blue, the purpose in the War for the Floor was always to assert the primacy of property rights, and particularly since his antagonists were the citizens of Telluride, equally easy to caricature – from Blue’s perspective – as idealistic hippies, or leftists, who did not respect private property rights.
We Telluride leftists were able to unite in opposition to Blue because even though we had a variety of our own odd reasons to want to seize the land, we were able to overlook them for as long as we had Blue as a shared antagonist. He just played the part so darned well!
Back in the early phases of the War for the Floor, some of us dared to imagine that the Valley Floor might be all things: we could acquire all of Blue’s holdings west of town, not just the acreage south of the highway, and get land for housing, recreation, community projects, and for river restoration and open space. But that was not to be. Another faction whose priority concern was open space reeled the goals back to open space only, on the south side only. But even ruling out the possibility of housing or a school site, or a rec center or any other kind of “development” on the Valley Floor left plenty to fight about.
As we now see.
And how fitting it is that we now have the dog contingent battling the defenders of wildlife versus the Nordic skiers. Back when they were all united in their shared objective of preventing houses or any other kind of construction on the Valley Floor, the most passionate Valley Floor preservationists didn’t anticipate this. But of course, their separate dreams are largely incompatible.
My own dream of holistic planning for the Valley Floor having long since been shattered, I have no dog in this fight. My dog is a West Highland Terrier who gets plenty of exercise walking from home to office and back. I’m not a Nordic skier. And I long ago rejected the idea that the Valley Floor is important for environmental reasons, not compared to real environmental issues like global warming and species extinction. I wanted to see the bulk of the Valley Floor preserved primarily to prevent sprawl and overdevelopment, and because I strongly support open space and because I thought we did need some of it for housing and other public uses. But the way we went about it we are still at risk of sprawl and overdevelopment, on the north side of the highway and at Society Turn, and we still don’t have land for housing, school expansion or even playing fields.
Basically, from my perspective, we spent our $50 million and failed to meet my primary objectives, except, possibly, my hope for river restoration, which will come, if at all, only at a cost of millions more.
Others had other priorities and now they are duking it out. To some, taking over 600 acres out of possible development helps keep Telluride small, which we might all agree is a good thing; since we haven’t come close to solving the housing problem, declaring the Valley Floor off-limits also helps keep Telluride elite, which many of us find obnoxious. To others, the historic preservationists, Telluride’s boundaries have been defended. A bunch of people imagined a day when they would run their dogs on the Valley Floor; others foresaw a pristine Nordic trail, unsullied by dog crap. Some love the prairie dogs; others fear that prairie dogs transmit bubonic plague. Still others dream of the river functioning as it once did, meandering and flooding the valley with beaver ponds. But, then, where will the skiers ski? Where will the dogs run? And what about the elk herd?
To each, his or her own $50 million public paradise.
Does the Valley Floor today offer evidence that as a community we drew the line and defended our values against rampant development and in support of the environment, outdoor recreation and dogs free to run, even if some of those values will have to give?
Or is it something closer to a symbol of idealism gone off the deep end and the elitism of a town without affordable housing and no economic common sense? In short, a symbol of our vanity.
The land itself, as beautiful as it is, is impassive. It says nothing at all. The values we ascribe to it are all ours.