TELLURIDE, Colo. — Hip enough for movie stars and small enough to walk to work, this old mining town has reached a crossroads.
There is a growing upper class in this ski resort at the end of a spectacular box canyon, including part-time residents in million-dollar homes perched on hillsides above town or hidden among the pines and aspens.
The question now is whether Telluride should build on its appeal to the rich by developing its lush, 880-acre valley floor. Similar dilemmas are becoming increasingly familiar in Western resort towns, including Jackson, Wyo., and Ketchum, Idaho.
The battle over Telluride's valley has landed in court. Officials in this town of 2,200 want to condemn and then set aside the cow pasture as mostly open space, saying Telluride's small-town feel would be ruined by new neighborhoods that would sit empty most of the year.
The valley floor is seen by developers as an ideal spot for condominiums, businesses, a hotel and a golf course.
Charles Haas, president of San Miguel Valley Corp., the company that owns and wants to develop the valley floor, disputed the notion that this is a fight for Telluride's soul. He said the town's character already has been destroyed.
"Quite frankly, it was a lot nicer before all the growth," Haas said. "What has destroyed the character is the fact that only the wealthy and trust-funders and second homeowners can live there."
He also said the project will include affordable housing as required by county zoning ordinances.
Telluride is a place where residents wave hello to each other and stop to chat as they walk to and from work. Brick buildings once filled with gold and silver miners are surrounded by the towering San Juan mountains. Waterfalls are visible from Columbia Avenue, the main street.
"It's beautiful," said Julie Van Eenenaam, who works in a bookstore and pays $370 a month in rent for a home she shares with two other women. "It's a little hard to save money, but I make it work."
Over the last three decades, Telluride has drawn attention and new residents with its beauty, its recreation, and its film, bluegrass and jazz festivals. In 1970, there weren't 2,000 people in all of surrounding San Miguel County; last year, there were 6,600--an 80% increase from 1990.
The town has become a destination for the well-to-do--not as expensive as Aspen, not as easily reached as Vail. It built an airport big enough for private jets in 1984. A decade later, supermodel Christie Brinkley married local developer Richard Taubman in ski boots, just a few months after they survived a helicopter crash on the ski slopes.
Homes at the base of Telluride Ski Resort sell for about $3.5 million, and homes in town average $1.5 million.
Nearly half the people who work in hotels, shops, government offices and in construction manage to live in town, though officials have struggled for years to preserve affordable housing by setting income requirements for people renting or buying certain properties.
Rising land values make that difficult. Two years ago, officials estimated that one of every four apartments, condominiums or houses was set aside as affordable housing. With new upscale construction, that number has dropped to one in 10.
"We want to build more affordable housing to keep people here," said Steve Ferris, a city planner. "It's the soul of Telluride. That's a big factor and political motivation."
He pointed to Vail and Aspen, where just 35% of those who work there also live there. The rest commute from surrounding towns.
Ninety percent of Telluride's renters have a roommate to split the rent, which averages $1,266 a month. Half the people working here make less than $2,600 per month, according to a town study. Many people live here on their parents' wealth, inheritance or alimony.
"You can make it," said Maureen Pelisson, 30, who moved here from San Francisco in November with her husband, Patrick, 32. "I gave up my cell phone. We don't go out to eat."
She is employed at an advertising agency and her husband works in the pro shop at a golf course. They drive 60 miles to Montrose to save money on groceries.
"You just have to be creative," she said. "But why live anywhere else?"