A vote this month could make Keystone Colorado’s newest town. For residents, it’s brought excitement, skepticism and uncertainty.
Election that ends March 28 could have longterm consequences on taxes, spending and legislative priorities
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to remove references to mill levies as part of Keystone’s tax revenue.
The results of an all-mail ballot election set to end in less than two weeks could make Keystone Colorado’s newest town. Just over 900 registered voters in the area could determine if the resort community will join the ranks of Breckenridge, Frisco, Dillon and Silverthorne as a home-rule municipality or remain governed by Summit County officials as an unincorporated area.
Ballots began hitting residents’ mailboxes last week and, as the March 28 voting deadline nears, community members are expressing a spectrum of emotions from excitement to skepticism to uncertainty.
For Ken Riley, a Keystone resident who has been at the forefront of efforts to bring the decision to a vote, this election represents “a turning point for the community.”
“Are we going to stay on the same path that we have now? Or are we going to take control of our own destiny?” said Riley, who leads two nonprofit citizen groups, Incorporate Keystone and the Keystone Citizens League, both of which support incorporation.
While Riley and others see a need to break from Summit County government in the belief it will give Keystone more power, some residents are not sold on the idea, with concerns it will eventually lead to more taxes and unnecessary bureaucracy. And the question of how much money the would-be town will be operating with remains contested between county officials and incorporation advocates.
The election marks the second attempt in nearly three decades to establish Keystone as its own town — a failed push by residents in 1996 and into ’97 never made it to a ballot. A petition signed by more than 200 Keystone voters last August kicked off the current process when it was certified in December by a district court judge, who also appointed an election commission to oversee the vote — a duty typically performed by a town clerk.
‘Money to the table’
Riley believes more local control will afford Keystone the ability to invest in priorities and projects that he said have long been neglected such as improving pedestrian safety on U.S. Highway 6 — the main thoroughfare bisecting the community — as well as strengthening negotiations with the Colorado Department of Transportation and Vail Resorts.
“Towns bring money to the table,” Riley said, adding that, for him, “getting pedestrians off the highway is the first priority” while his “second priority is calming the traffic speeds down.”
Highway 6 has become a flashpoint for residents who say potholes, excessive speeds and round-the-clock traffic threaten safety. Valerie Thisted, a five-year Keystone resident and parent of three Summit School District students, said she worries for her children who’ve had to brace the thoroughfare to make it to their school bus. With snow plows, oil tankers and other vehicles barreling through, Thisted said the highway can be “terrifying” for pedestrians.
“Sometimes I would end up taking my kids to school because I couldn’t stand having my kids stand in the dark on the side of Highway 6 playing Russian roulette with their lives,” Thisted said.
“Most of the other towns have representatives who get to meet with the school district monthly to talk about the needs of their communities,” Thisted said. “Keystone doesn’t have a seat at that table because we’re not a town.”
It’s one reason why Thisted supports incorporation. She is also one of 13 Keystone residents running for a seat on a charter commission that will draft the town’s rules. Along with the decision to incorporate, voters will also be asked to create the commission and elect nine candidates to run it.
With its own council and town manager, Keystone can form a government that gives undivided attention to the community, said Tim Huiting, an eight-year resident and president of the Keystone Owners Association.
“A lot of this isn’t really about county bashing,” said Huiting, who is also a charter commission candidate. “It’s just unreasonable to expect they’d be able to focus on our town issues the way a town council and manager could.”
Huiting, whose organization represents Keystone homeowners, gave the example of issues raised over traffic and flood mitigation on Antlers Gulch Road, which connects a cluster of townhomes off U.S. Highway 6 to the more-recently-built Village at Wintergreen workforce housing apartments. Area homeowners, who currently manage the road, have called on county commissioners to provide solutions to traffic and infrastructure, concerns which Huiting said should have been addressed years ago.
Contention over the Wintergreen apartments represents a larger issue for residents: managing growth and development. County officials have eyed projects like Wintergreen to shore up housing supply amid a lack of inventory. Meanwhile, market-rate homes priced in the millions — such as the 95-condo Kindred Resorts and 24-townhome Alcove Residencies — are moving forward in Keystone.
“We have no control over that zoning of what requirements these developers have to agree to,” Huiting said, adding that he wants to see a master plan for Keystone that could provide the guiding framework for future developments.
At just under 1,300 people, Keystone would be Summit County’s fourth-largest and fourth-smallest self-governing town.
According to a proposed map, which would take effect if voters approve incorporation, the would-be town’s limits will begin just after the turn-off for Swan Mountain Road on Highway 6 and stretch as far west as the properties around Trappers Crossing off Montezuma Road. It would include major hubs like River Run Village as well as neighborhood areas that are home to residents and short-term rental owners.
‘A leap of faith’
Despite intrigue, Keystone resident Mitch Melichar said he is “skeptical” of becoming a town.
“I do agree that Keystone has unmet needs and the idea of incorporation could make sense,” said Melichar, a 38-year resident and fly fishing guide at Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne.
But Melichar said he has concerns about the cost of starting and maintaining a new municipality. He also wants to know more about how a town council would accomplish its legislative goals, from public safety to infrastructure to child care. On those questions, Melichar feels there have been vague responses.
“They say a lot of things that many people want to hear, but they’ve done nothing to suggest how to fix the problem,” Melichar said. “At this point in time, it’s a bit of a leap of faith.”
He’s also unsure if Keystone has the “economic base” to be self-sustainable, adding that a feasibility study by the citizens league offering a five-year projection of revenues and expenditures may underestimate future costs.
“Almost any new business venture underestimates the true costs and that’s what (incorporation) is, a business,” Melichar said.
Incorporation advocates have stated the town could operate on its existing revenue structure without adding or increasing taxes on residents, though some have floated implementing ideas such as a lift ticket tax (akin to Breckenridge’s) or lodging tax — which would be paid by overnight guests.
Those proposals, Melichar said, “seem feasible,” though he said he’s still doubtful of the claim that taxes would not be added or raised.
“I just don’t think enough work has been done on what a town really would cost,” Melichar said. “They have the numbers, but they haven’t shown the math.”
Roman Kowalewicz, a 26-year-resident and owner of the 3 Peaks Lodge hotel off Highway 6, has those same concerns.
Kowalewicz said his hotel currently has a 6% lodging tax and is worried that any further increases to that tax under a new town will only hurt customers.
“People are already complaining that Keystone is relatively expensive,” Kowalewicz said. “(Incorporation) doesn’t make any sense. If it works, don’t try to fix it.”
Kowalewicz said he feels Keystone’s relationship with county officials, from commissioners to the sheriff’s office, meets the area’s current needs, adding that when he’s faced issues county staff have usually been receptive to helping.
For Melichar, a town government offers no guarantee that residents’ issues will improve.
“Could we accomplish more of what we want to do just by being active with our existing structure?” Melichar asked.
‘A very conservative approach’
For many voters, the question to incorporate comes down to money.
Proponents of the effort have claimed Keystone gives to the county more than it receives, with a one-page memo provided by Riley claiming the area “provides over $8.5 million in taxes and fees for Summit County while receiving only $85,000 annually in routine plowing/road maintenance and on-call law enforcement.”
About half that $8.5 million figure, however, is from property taxes — fees that would remain with the county.
In an email statement, county spokesperson Dave Rossi disputed the claim that Keystone receives $85,000 annually in services and said that number is closer to $3.5 million. Rossi gave several examples of high-expense items including $380,000 per year on road and bridge maintenance, $118,000 per year for building inspections, plan review and administration as well as a $300,000 agreement with CDOT to mitigate safety concerns on Rasor Drive in Keystone.
County officials have also differed with incorporation advocates on Keystone’s projected spending should it become a town. Initial comparisons of a five-year spending plan put forward by both the county and the citizens league showed discrepancies of millions of dollars between the two.
With revenues for the town projected to total roughly $20 million by 2027, both studies estimated the bulk of funds would be spent on administration, public works and public safety. The differences are in the town’s general fund surplus — the money it would have on hand each year after spending — with the citizens league projecting millions while the county estimated a few hundred thousand.
Riley, who helped lead the citizen’s league study, claimed that comparison was based on an earlier spending. The most recent, and final study, is available on the Incorporate Keystone website and shows general fund surplus amounts much closer to the county’s projection.
“We took a very conservative approach with regard to projected expenses,” Riley said.
Still, the citizens league projects the total five-year surplus for the town will be roughly $3.5 million while the county projects about $2.5 million. Within a given year, the citizens league estimates surplus amounts of hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what county officials have claimed.
‘Fraught with obstacles’
Keystone’s projected funding is of particular concern for Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, who said the cost of standing up Keystone’s own police department would easily be a multimillion-dollar effort.
Incorporation proponents have pitched outsourcing their public safety by contracting with local law enforcement, possibly through the sheriff’s office, to gain at least two full-time deputies and 24/7 on-call service.
FitzSimons said that’s far from an easy feat.
“It’s fraught with obstacles,” FitzSimons said. “You are contracting to not only enforce state law but whatever municipal laws they come up with. So it’s a lot to figure out.”
FitzSimons said contracting with a would-be town of Keystone is “not an option” for his department, at least not currently. Last year, the sheriff’s office responded to more than 1,500 calls in Keystone with an average of 175 hours per week spent in the area.
To sustain, or even expand, that level of service with dedicated staff for Keystone would siphon resources away from the rest of the county, FitzSimons said, adding, “it wouldn’t be fair to the taxpayers. It would stretch the county too thin.”
If the Sheriff’s Office were to contract with Keystone, FitzSimons said he’d be forced to hire two new deputies, a process which could take anywhere from three months to more than a year, especially as departments across the country face a slew of hiring challenges.
“It’s an oversimplification of public safety,” FitzSimons said of Riley’s proposal. “And, I think, a false promise.”
Vail Resorts — Keystone’s largest employer which leases more than 3,000 acres of ski terrain — has stayed mostly silent on the topic of incorporation.
In response to questions from the Summit Daily News, Keystone Resort spokesperson Max Winter stated, “While we share similar concerns raised by the county around the proposed incorporation’s projected budget, our biggest goal is to remain strong community partners and collaborators and to provide a great experience at Keystone for our local community and our guests.”
The Summit Board of County Commissioners has also not taken an official stance, though Rossi stated that “the board believes self-determination does offer communities more control. But it comes at a cost, as borne out in both studies, even if the numbers differ.
“Citizens must consider this when deciding to add more government, which incorporation will entail,” Rossi continued. “The board has remained neutral on the efforts to incorporate but is concerned that citizens are being provided incomplete figures and estimates and wishes to provide the correct information so voters can make an informed decision.”
As voters continue to fill out ballots, Riley and others have maintained that their goals and policies for a new town will be successful — should voters approve it.
“We’re hopeful it’ll pass,” Riley said. “We believe it’s the right thing.”
Ballots can be dropped off at the Keystone Center, located at 1628 Saints John Road, on Monday, Thursday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It will also be open until 7 p.m. on Election Day, March 28.
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