TELLURIDE – Sandwiched between the westernmost boundary of the Town of Telluride and the Valley Floor, the town-owned “Pearl Property” has always beckoned with a sense of shimmery, luminous possibility for Telluriders.
The latest dream for the “The Pearl” was outlined at a Telluride Town Council meeting on Tuesday, June 4, by the founders of a new group called Telluride Grown. The group was inspired to activism by Mountainfilm and is spurred by a sense of urgency to reduce the town’s collective carbon footprint. It seeks to use the undeveloped northern portion of the Pearl property to build a series of aquaponic greenhouses to raise fish and organic vegetables for local consumption.
Telluride Grown founders Steve Cieciuch and Kris Holstrom, bolstered by a roomful of supporters and a petition with 117 signatures from community members (77 of whom were registered voters in the Town of Telluride), requested that council consider placing a question on the November Town Ballot to “zone” the upland (non-wetland) portion of the north side of the Pearl property as “Agricultural” as a first step in seeing their dream through to reality.
If the ballot question were to pass, Telluride Grown would then approach the town with a request to lease the property to create a nonprofit, high-altitude urban farm utilizing
cutting edge growing techniques including aquaponics to grow pesticide free vegetables
and mercury free fish for Telluride's residents and guests.
The aquaponic model features a compact, closed-loop growing system whereby ammonia excreted by the fish (yellow perch and an Australian species called barramundi are considered to be the best options) gets converted into nitrogen fertilizer for the plants cultivated in “grow towers.” Ideally, the whole thing could be powered by solar energy.
“It’s a fantastic way to grow food in an arid environment,” Cieciuch said. “Obviously this is a contentious piece of property, but if we truly want to make a difference, this can be a statement to other communities and will set an example that will be emulated.”
Cieciuch outlined a number of factors driving his proposal. Most importantly, he said, it would provide a local climate solution to reduce truck traffic to Telluride related to the delivery of vegetables grown in California, which average 1,500 miles per delivery and result in approximately 4,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere with every delivery.
Cieciuch emphasized that affordable land is essential to his idea’s success, and said that the Pearl parcel – which is flat, sunny and easily accessible – is ideal for the endeavor.
The problem is, Telluride Grown’s proposal comes on the heels of council’s decision in March put a proposal of its own on November’s ballot to commit the bulk of the 6.65-acre Pearl Property to open space.
The sentiment of community members who packed the council meeting room on Tuesday morning appeared to be largely in favor of Telluride Grown’s vision for the Pearl.
Even Kathy Green, an open space watchdog and one of the petitioners who initiated Ordinance 1099 which restricts the Town of Telluride from directly or indirectly building, developing, paving or parking on the Pearl property, gave her tentative blessing to the Telluride Grown proposal, but emphasized that no toxic building materials should be used in the greenhouse construction, and said that a “successor plan” should be in place to ensure that if Telluride Grown goes away, the property would revert to open space once again.
As a counterpoint, Kevin Smith, representing the Telluride Air Force hang-gliding group, argued in favor of leaving the north parcel of the Pearl undeveloped, explaining that his group uses it as their primary landing field.
Jerry Green, too, encouraged council to stick with its plan to ask voters in November to commit the north parcel of the property to open space.
“I was pleased to hear that we were on the edge of a permanent solution for the Pearl,” he said, warning council that the Telluride Grown proposal has the potential to “divide the conservationist community in a bitter way.”
Community sentiment regarding the Pearl Property has always run high. Youth sports advocates have recently made the case that the best and highest use of the land would be to commit it to youth athletic fields, while the Telluride Science Research Center eyed it as a potential campus for its new facility before focusing on a location elsewhere in town. Past unsuccessful proposals for the land have included turning the whole thing into a parking lot, and building a medical center there.
Council, while enthusiastic about the Telluride Grown concept in theory, generally expressed reluctance to see it happen on the Pearl property, and encouraged Telluride Grown to work with the town to find a more suitable location.
“Every time the name ‘Pearl’ is mentioned, the hair goes up on the back of everyone’s neck,” said Mayor Stu Fraser. “We have actually said ‘no’ to some other worthwhile proposals for the property.... I can’t tell you the anger that has taken place, the people who want us to tear down Entrada [a town-built affordable housing complex on the southern end of the property] and the parking lot [also on the southern Pearl parcel]. That’s the passion that runs with the Pearl.”
Fraser and the majority of council members advocated for sticking with the town-sponsored ballot measure preserving the north parcel as open space. “It has met with acceptance from a major portion of community,” Fraser said. “Do we want to fool around with this, or resolve it once and for all? I think this is the most amazing concept, but I don’t think the Pearl is the place for it.”
Cieciuch challenged Fraser’s judgment on the matter, and urged him to take a more pro-active stance. “Be the change. Stand up and make it happen,” he said.
Fraser defended his position, and the ballot issue that the town has committed itself to pursuing, and invited Telluride Grown to come up with a competing ballot issue of its own.
Telluride Grown could pursue placing the question on the ballot through a citizen’s initiative by gathering about 40 local signatures. Cieciuch and Holstrom, regrouping after the work session, said they will take some time to evaluate their options before moving forward.
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