Top 10 of 2021: COVID, fire recovery, housing, mental health and more
Another year gone in Grand County has given Sky-Hi News’s editorial staff a chance to reflect back on these last 12 months.
Choosing the top 10 stories in a widespread community like ours is always a challenge. With so many interesting and impactful things happening across the county, our selections have been based on what has affected the community the most.
It felt like Grand County tried to put itself back together this year after 2020 changed everything. Navigating the second year of a pandemic, rebuilding from the East Troublesome Fire and dealing as best we can with the struggles that haunt resort communities like ours, 2021 felt like the beginning of a new era.
One thing hasn’t changed though — the Grand County community continues to be a close knit, passionate group of folks that your newspaper tries to tell the story of every day.
Year two of the COVID-19 pandemic was deadly in Grand County, accounting for 13 deaths over the past 12 months.
The county reports an additional four deaths with COVID-19, meaning the deceased had COVID-19 when they died but the virus was not considered the cause of death.
At least 12 of these 18 deaths were in unvaccinated people, according to health department reporting. Grand County Public Health has said that the overwhelming majority of residents who have died due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated.
Grand County has been sitting at a roughly 60% vaccination rate for eligible residents since June, though 71.6% of eligible residents have at least one dose. Since March 2020, Grand has recorded 2,479 resident cases and 81 people have been hospitalized.
After starting the year appointing Abbie Baker as the county’s new public health director, vaccine rollout began in earnest. One resident died due to COVID in January as the county navigated a number of outbreaks, including one that infected 140 Winter Park Resort employees.
Vaccinations became widely available to the general Grand County public by April as cases decreased. The mask mandate in the county and state was gone by May. Summer started to look more like normal in Grand, as events returned and more tourists than ever arrived.
Unfortunately, this meant more COVID transmission and by August, cases and hospitalizations were once again surging. In less than six weeks, eight Grand County residents had died because of COVID-19.
Both school districts were able to finish out the 2020-2021 school years almost entirely in person and give the classes of 2021 a slightly more normal graduation celebration.
Going into the 2021-2022 school year with state guidance but no official mandates, East Grand and West Grand both had to make their own decisions on masking. The heated debate brought out swaths of the public to both school boards.
West Grand opted to recommend but not require masks, while East Grand did. Both have had a number of quarantines throughout the first semester, with West Grand going on to add a temporary mask requirement if certain groups reached a COVID-19 positivity rate over 5%.
Vaccines, initially approved for just adults over 18, first became available to the 12-18 age group in September. In early November, that eligibility spread to the 5-11 age group as well. Adults are now encouraged to get their COVID-19 booster shots.
Throughout the fall, Grand has struggled along with the rest of the state with hospital capacity. With an average of 80% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients being unvaccianted, the state at times throughout this fall had fewer than 100 ICU beds available. Part of this has been driven by the staffing shortages facing hospitals across the state.
In the past four weeks, another four Grand County residents have been killed by COVID-19.
The omicron variant was found in Grand earlier this month. While there is still much to be learned about this new variant of concern, an estimated 75% of new COVID cases are thought to be caused by it. In response, some New Year’s Eve activities in the county have been rolled back or entirely canceled, including Granby Ranch’s celebration.
Because of the snow that helped stop the East Troublesome Fire, much of the damage remained hidden through the winter. As snow melted in the early spring, it became clear that Grand County had a lot of recovery work to do.
Of the more than 500 structures destroyed in the East Troublesome, 372 were homes. County records show that 312 of those homes have cleared debris while at least 29 have not. Through the Grand Foundation, 225 households reported an intention to rebuild.
Much of the debris removal happened thanks to a partnership between the county, Grand Foundation and Southern Colorado Baptist Relief. Over 161 homes received free debris removal assistance thanks to 142 volunteers from the Southern Baptist group working more than 6,500 hours.
Recovery work on the fire scars was hampered in the summer by mudslides and debris flow, which frequently closed Colorado Highway 125, occasionally trapping drivers. Hot Sulphur Springs had to temporarily stop water intake from the Colorado River after the East Troublesome Fire debris turned the river dark and ashy.
To combat these intense watershed impacts, Northern Water and Grand County got started on the Emergency Watershed Protection work by mulching and reseeding areas of the forest near waterways, as well as installing debris booms in Grand Lake to protect water clarity. A lot of work was completed this year, but post-fire flooding and mudflows will remain a hazard in the burn scar for years to come.
The Headwaters Trails Alliance was responsible for clearing approximately 7,500 trees in fire recovery areas between December 2020 and November. Grand County, the Colorado Department of Transportation and public land managers removed thousands more.
Despite regular fire danger that continued late into the fall, Grand County was spared from another devastating fire. The Black Mountain Fire flared up in late August and did raise anxieties for the scarred county. The lightning-caused fire burned just over 400 acres but no structures and was mostly contained by mid-September.
On the one year anniversary of the fire, the Grand County community came together to remember the night when so much of the community had to flee their homes. They mourned the deaths of Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, and reflected on the community members who would not be able to rebuild in Grand County.
The fire victims who decided to stay now vary greatly in their rebuilding processes as some families battle insurance and others struggle to find the contractors to break ground. Full recovery remains years away.
Housing prices in Grand County remain on an upward trajectory with inventory too low to meet demand, maintaining trends from the past few years. With the county’s workforce being pushed out of the market, local governments are working to build or provide affordable units.
Winter Park addressed an immediate need for the 2021-2022 ski season through the Short-Term Fix program, which gave property owners cash for converting short-term rentals into six or 12 month leases for local employees. The program was able to provide 47 bedrooms across 25 properties to Winter Park businesses.
The town also broke ground on infrastructure for 20 houses in the Hideaway Junction neighborhood, which will be deed restricted to county workforce.
In partnership with Fraser, Winter Park is also creating a regional housing authority to steward future affordable housing projects, seek sustainable funding and partner with developers to meet the need. The regional housing authority could be established early next year with a plan to put a tax question to voters in November.
Fraser is in the process of deed restricting two single-family homes in town, requiring one person to work at least 30 hours per week in the county to live in the house full time.
Outside the valley, Grand Lake continues to plan for between 20 to 30 workforce units through the Artspace Space to Create project.
As for Granby, the town has been focusing affordable housing efforts on the former Rodeo Apartments development. After the developer, Mark Unicome, failed to close on the property sale from the town and proposed some major changes to the original agreement, Granby began withdrawing from agreements.
The developer and Granby may be going to court over the agreements, but the town has begun investing into what could be 300 units of affordable housing. The town purchased a property to allow for highway access to the property that sits between Silver Sage subdivision and Flying Heels Rodeo grounds and is investing into major sewer line upgrades, while also exploring what it would take to adjust the area median income requirement tied into the property.
County commissioners are currently discussing a $250,000 contribution to help the Grand Foundation purchase the Historic Rapids Lodge and turn it into 11 one-bedroom units, which could be rented to families displaced by the East Troublesome Fire along with local workforce. The entire property would be donated to the Grand County Housing Authority once the purchase is complete.
Another part of the affordable housing debate is how the county should approach short-term rentals. With workers being priced out by the lucrative properties among other factors, short-term rentals became a hotter topic than ever this year in Grand when county commissioners mulled a possible moratorium.
With more than half of short-term rentals operating in unincorporated Grand County without a permit, the county began seriously looking at the controversial topic in late July. After extensive discussions with stakeholder groups, the commissioners backed off of the moratorium but have invested into better enforcement. Updated regulations and higher fees and fines are likely on their way early next year.
The need for affordable housing is growing rapidly as the once sleepy mountain community charges forward with more development and more visitors than ever before.
Census results showed that almost every town in Grand County saw a population increase, with the exception of Grand Lake. The county added 874 residents for a 5.9% increase in population, with Fraser and Granby seeing the most growth.
Census data also measured a slower growth rate of housing units in the county compared to Grand’s population increase. In total, the county has 16,633 housing units, but just 572 of those were added in the last 10 years.
A study released in April quantified just how much tourism drove Grand County’s economy in 2019, finding that outdoor recreation accounts for 78% of the county’s economy. According to that report, more than two million visitors came to Grand in 2019 resulting in $590 million of spending in the local economy.
Despite COVID-19 — or maybe because the pandemic has driven more people toward outdoor recreation — the county’s two biggest tourist attractions continue to see more and more visitors.
Rocky Mountain National Park continues to be one of the most visited national parks in the country. The park announced that it will be keeping timed entry reservations for a third summer and is looking at implementing a long-term visitor management strategy.
Winter Park Resort has turned to extending hours on the slopes through guided ski, ride and snowshoe tours, as well as stargazing and astronomy tours on the mountain. Resort spokesperson Jen Miller said guests responded enthusiastically to the after-hours offerings in the past, prompting Winter Park to expand options and disperse crowds.
Additionally, several new restaurants opened at the base of the resort to feed the hungry masses, including MexiCali Tacos, a new outdoor woodfired dining facility called Ember at Snoasis, Bradley’s at the Base and the well-known Front Range restaurant Stoney’s Bar and Grill.
Across the board, the county and municipal governments in Grand continue to see growing tax revenue. For Grand, Granby, Winter Park and Grand Lake, sales tax looks like they’ll be up over 20% compared to last year.
Even in marijuana sales, which saw a statewide decline this year compared to last, Grand County continues to break records. The county will likely break $1 million worth of monthly marijuana sales next year if trends continue.
On the real estate side, values continue to spike. Grand County’s properties went up more than 15% in value this year compared to last.
According to data from the Land Title Guarantee Company, as of the end of October real estate sales totaled $992 million, almost surpassing all of last year’s sales which combined to be $994.7 million.
Inventory continues to be a challenge, particularly properties priced lower than $600,000. On Wednesday, the Grand County Board of Realtors property search portal showed just 10 properties on the market below $600,000.
The lack of affordable housing combined with an ever growing economy has left Grand, like many communities across the country, struggling to find employees.
From servers to police officers, teachers to healthcare workers, mechanics to custodians and everything in between, the employee shortage has underpinned most every conversation in Grand.
Earlier this year, Grand County was down to just four 911 dispatchers who had to work 12 hour shifts alone while the sole officer at the jail would have to wait 10-15 minutes to get back up. The sheriff’s office was short 20% of its 60-person staff in March, forcing some staff to work upwards of 100 hours a week.
The county clerk, health department, road and bridge, and just about every other large county department struggled with staffing this year, forcing the county to get creative and increase pay next year. The recent snow has been the latest evidence of the ongoing snowplow driver shortage and just how much this affects Grand.
Private businesses are struggling just as much, forcing many owners to cut services or roll back hours. In September, the gap between the number of unemployed people in Grand and the number of open jobs in the county was 1,200.
More than half of Grand County’s voters turned out in an odd year election and passed four separate tax measures across the county, many of which are attempting in part to address this worker shortage.
The only countywide tax measure was a 1.75 mill levy increase for Grand County Emergency Medical Services. The money will go toward pay raises, new ambulances and the repairs or replacement of the Granby and Fraser stations.
Both school districts managed to pass measures — East Grand passed a $85 million bond while West Grand passed a $550,000 mill levy override. West Grand’s measure ended up making it through by just nine votes, but the tax increase means the school will see much-needed staff raises and capital improvements.
East Grand’s bond will pay off the district security improvements that were finished this year. The district is also looking to build a replacement for Granby Elementary, which has reached its capacity, and East Grand already has a lease on a piece of land for the potential building. The bond can also be used for capital improvements at the other three schools, including an expansion at Fraser Valley Elementary and a career and technical education center at Middle Park High School.
Grand Fire, serving Granby and surrounding areas, passed its tax ask by the widest margin, and the $341,000 mill levy increase will go toward capital upgrades, fire prevention and personnel.
Also this election, the county asked whether residents would like to term limit elected officials aside from the commissioners who are already limited to three terms. Residents said yes to every office except for the coroner. Currently serving officials will still be able to serve three more full terms before reaching their limits.
The 2022 election is already winding up. Kris Manguso, serving commissioner district three covering the western end of the county, has decided not to run again. Republican David Buckley and Democrat Tekoa Shalom have both filed paperwork to run for the position, which is elected at large.
Current Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin has not decided whether he will be running for re-election. Two candidates have also registered to run in the sheriff’s office race: Jamie Lucas and Melissa Peters. Lucas, the former Kremmling Police Chief, no longer lives in Grand County and so is not eligible to run.
While no other candidates have yet filed to run with the state, the county clerk and recorder, treasurer, assessor, surveyor and coroner will also be up for election. Town boards will also be seeing elections this year.
Following 2020’s record suicide deaths in Grand County, community members came together to address mental health needs and grow resources.
2021 saw the first annual Suicide Awareness Hike at the Snow Mountain Ranch in September which drew hundreds of residents impacted by loss.
The event gathered numerous local mental health resources, including Grand County Rural Health Network, Mind Springs, Grand County Public Health and Middle Park Health, to spread the word about addressing mental health issues and suicide stigma.
Grand County Rural Health Network continued to see high demand for their mental health vouchers, which help locals get low or no cost mental health care.
Additionally, the rural health network’s Community Leader Group focused its efforts on reducing suicide stigma and improving mental health resources in Grand County. The leader group created an online guide to suicide resources in an effort to change search engine results from showing death statistics as the first link when looking for help.
The group was also instrumental in hosting the first suicide awareness event.
As demand for mental health resources grows, so has the county’s ability to meet that need. There are currently 13 providers practicing, up from 11 in 2018.
After a successful season under new management despite having to navigate a ski season like no other due to COVID-19, Granby Ranch transferred ownership once again in May.
The ski and golf resort along with its surrounding developments had been foreclosed upon in 2020. The lender, GP Granby Holdings, took control of the assets in the fall of 2020.
Earlier this year, the ski resort was bought by two developers from Missouri, Bob and David Glarner, https://www.skyhinews.com/news/new-developer-to-purchase-granby-ranch/ for $29 million to their newly formed company, GR Terra. The Glarners said when the sale was announced that they have been visiting Granby Ranch for years and hoped that the purchase would clear up a number of disputes that had been brewing through the transition year.
Through the summer, Granby Ranch invested millions of dollars into snowmaking upgrades to bring the latest technology to the resort and add equipment to the west mountain. With those upgrades, the resort was able to host what may have been Granby Ranch’s biggest ever event on the mountain — the World Pro Ski Tour.
The developer at Granby Ranch is also in the process of renegotiating a number of major agreements with the town and adjusting the area’s development plan. Items like roads and water could be worked out within the next few months, while bigger pieces like changes in the development’s density would have to go through public processes.
Granby Ranch had a major announcement this month in partnership with the most decorated male Alpine skier in the country, Bode Miller. Just west of the ski resort base will be the future home of the Bode Miller Ski Academy, which will provide academics and athletic training in four different ski disciplines along with extensive scholarshipping. The grand opening of the academy is expected to be in three to five years.
Granby Ranch had planned to host the US Freestyle Ski and Snowboard Team’s Freestyle Team Mogul Skiers for a pre-Olympic training session, but canceled this week due to rising COVID-19 cases across the country. The resort also canceled the New Year’s Eve events planned for tonight, but regular operations are continuing at the moment with no changes.
Fraser and Grand Park developer Clark Lipscomb moved the fight over the future of the Cozens and Elk Creek meadows, particularly whether a conservation easement is required under the neighborhood’s annexation agreement, to Grand County District Court.
In an effort to try and nail down an easement on the meadows, the town board voted in July to stop processing entitlements for Grand Park developments, finding Grand Park in violation of its annexation agreement until an easement was approved.
An easement for 17.7 acres of Elk Creek Meadow was filed in March 2020, but the town board declared the easement null and void in October 2020 after Town Attorney Rod McGowan said he hadn’t approved the document.
This caused Grand Park to sue Fraser in August, arguing the easement is still valid and meets the annexation agreement requirements, giving the town no legal standing to withhold entitlements. The suit added that the town’s decision was causing monetary harm to the development.
After two days of hearings, the court sided with Grand Park and agreed to force Fraser to resume entitlement processes. However, the court did not rule on the easement for the meadows.
Fraser countersued Grand Park in October seeking to condemn Cozens Meadow and trying to secure the easement through court action.
The lawsuit again asserts the conservation easement filed in Elk Creek Meadow is null and void and asks the court to make declaratory judgment agreeing and finding Grand Park in breach of contract.
To decide the matters, Fraser requested a jury trial.
A response filing from Grand Park attorney Scott Albertson refutes Fraser’s claims, arguing the town has no entitlement to the land or relief in court. Albertson asks the court to dismiss Fraser’s complaint.
Grand Park is still claiming Fraser owes the development for money lost while the town wasn’t processing developments, as well as seeking a judgment in their favor on the Elk Creek conservation easement.
A case management conference, which comes before a trial, has not yet been set in the case.
GRAND LAKE RECALL
Still reeling from the East Troublesome Fire, Grand Lake saw a divisive election this year over the recall of Mayor Steve Kudron.
Kudron has been mayor since he was elected in April 2020 and petitioners accused Kudron of being fiscally irresponsible, offering improper leadership, violating open meetings law and failing to produce sufficient financial and comprehensive town planning. Many of the concerns centered around the ArtSpace workforce housing project, but Kudron has repeatedly denied these accusations and argued that many accusations were lies.
Despite some disputes over the legitimacy of signatures garnered to recall the mayor, the recall election went forward for Oct. 5 in Grand Lake, asking electors if they wished to remove Kudron from office and then listing former Mayor Judy Burke as a potential replacement. Signs went up around town encouraging residents to vote for or against the recall election.
As the election drew nearer, some of those political signs were vandalized and both sides accused the other of foul play.
The contentious issue came to an end on Oct. 5 when Grand Lakers overwhelmingly decided to keep Kudron in a 150-45 vote. After the vote, petitioners said they were disappointed with the result but ready to move on.
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