The seven-acre Pearl Property is located at the western edge of Telluride between Mahoney Drive and the Valley Floor, directly across Colorado Ave. from the Telluride High/Middle School, and was the subject of much debate throughout the 1990s. Voters approved acquiring the property for $2.8 million in 1993 for the express purpose of using it for an intercept parking lot, but sentiment about how to use the property changed over the course of a series of failed ballot measures that would have allowed the development to take place. The public last voted to “save the Pearl” from use as a parking lot in 1998, creating Ordinance 1099.
That ordinance reads, “Neither the Town of Telluride, nor any of its boards or commissions, directly or indirectly, may build upon, develop, pave, or utilize for vehicular parking, the real property known as the Pearl Property.”
This week’s discussion of the Pearl began with a site walk led by Dr. David Cooper, who has studied the hydrology of the property at various times over the last 25 years. His concern, as was that of many of the voters at the time of the 1998 vote, is the protection of the wetlands contained on the property.
Cooper explained that more scientific data was necessary to make an informed assessment of the possible future use or protection of the site. He suggested extending a series of monitoring stations that are currently collecting data on the property and tracing the flow of the multiple water sources serving the property using natural isotopes.
Council was in unanimous agreement in directing staff to begin the process of testing as early as next week, stating that any discussion of the potential future use of the property was premature. Council member David Oyster said that “he wanted to see the science,” but questioned whether spending money on testing was simply an opening salvo to reopen the discussion of uses of the property.
Fraser rebutted that he felt the study was the first step in finally putting the question of the future of the Pearl to rest. While he did not rule out the possibility of use of some of the site, he said, the science was needed to have any informed discussion. Council member Ann Brady agreed, calling the study “essential.”
Kathy Green, who was one of the original sponsors of the action to save the property from development, stated that she was in favor of the testing, but emphasized that the town must be sensitive to the wetlands once that data was collected. In an explanation of the history of the property dating back to the 1970s, she discussed the town’s current zoning setback of 25 feet, which she helped develop after attending a wetlands education forum in 1987.
“We need to let the wetlands breath,” she stated, explaining that the 25 foot setback was intended to address the small lots that make up the majority of the Town of Telluride, not a property as large as the Pearl.
Cooper supported Green’s request that the town consider a 100 foot setback on the Pearl. Cooper added that 25 feet was considered a minimum for most communities that enacted wetlands protections. Saftler agreed, pointing out that the San Miguel County setback for wetlands was 100 feet.
While Green conceded that, after hydrological studies and the imposition of 100 foot setbacks to the property, she might be willing to consider some use of the remaining property, Saftler was unflagging in his insistence that the town designate the Pearl permanent open space.
“The voters [in 1998] sent as clear a message as could be,” he said. “The fact that you are contemplating this now is ridiculous!”
Council member Chris Myers disagreed, observing that while town ordinances allow for reconsideration after six months, thirteen years have passed and much had changed, including the town’s purchase of the bordering Valley Floor property. That being said, he went on, “we want to do what the voters wanted,” saying that he felt that council would be remiss if they did not “do the science.” Like Fraser, he said he felt this was a way to finish what the voters had started by finally protecting much of the property in perpetuity.
Council member Oyster also agreed, stating that the current council had not yet planned to build anything on the property, and that he viewed the renewed discussion of the property as an opportunity to “heal a wound in our community.”
Funding of the testing became a near non-issue after Telluride Project Manager Karen Guglielmone explained the relative low costs of additional wells and the isotope study, plus the fact that the town currently has two volunteers who are pursuing watershed degrees to help with the project
Council directed staff to begin the study as soon as possible and hopes to see results that could guide an informed discussion of the future of the Pearl by the end of September.