BASALT - The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission has recommended approval for a 148-unit proposed retirement community but left the biggest issue on the table for the Town Council to decide.
The planning commission voted 6-0 Tuesday night to recommend first-round approval of the Continuing Care and Retirement Community. Aspen Valley Foundation wants to build the 148-unit project on South Side Drive, near Basalt High School.
The nonprofit foundation has vowed not to charge entry fees on 12 independent living units to try to make them more affordable for residents. The housing would be open to anyone, but the foundation anticipates that the greatest interest from the Roaring Fork Valley. The foundation wants the town government to waive its affordable-housing requirements since it is already providing essential community housing.
Richard Shaw, of Design Workshop, which is handling the planning of the project, said it will help more senior citizens remain in the Roaring Fork Valley. The project will have 78 independent-living units and 18 cottages for seniors who need little or no special medical care. There will be another 28 assisted-living units and 24 skilled nursing units. They will be built in phases based on demand.
Shaw urged the planning commission members not to view the project the same as a private development. Requiring all the affordable housing advised in the land-use code will jeopardize the foundation's efforts to keep rents as affordable as possible.
"A nonprofit provider means costs to seniors will reflect land, construction and operation costs," Shaw said. There is no profit incentive in the project, he said.
The request to waive affordable housing split the planning commission. Some members spoke in favor of a waiver for affordable housing since the project fills such an important need.
"I see nothing wrong with this project," said commission member Geno Rossetti.
Other commission members said affordable housing would ensure the project is housing seniors of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Commission chairman Bernie Grauer expressed concern that the project is "skewed toward the wealthy."
The commission also wrestled with affordable-housing requirements for some of the 80 employees the retirement community anticipates it will generate.
For a project of this type, the town code says that 30 percent of the total residential units should be restricted with monthly rental caps. However, the requirement can be waived if town officials believe the project provides a community benefit.
Planning commission member Tracy Bennett said there is clearly a need for senior housing. The foundation also will provide a 3,000-square-foot daycare facility on its campus, providing help in another important area, she said.
Holding the foundation to the affordable housing requirement "seems excessive to me," Bennett said. The complex also will provide jobs and spur the town's economy, she said.
"I see a dire need to bring some energy back to downtown," Bennett said.
Grauer said he could understand waiving affordable housing mitigation on 52 units where residents will require some level of medical care. Those units fit a special community need, he said.
But the remaining 96 units are similar to any other residential project, Grauer said. Under the town code, they would require 29 affordable housing units.
Planning commission members Dylan Johns and Eric Vozick credited the project for meeting an important community need, but they said the foundation should provide some level of worker housing.
"(Eighty) workers is a pretty substantial number to absorb into the community," Johns said.
Vozick agreed that worker housing was important.
"I think people want to see this happen, but they want to see it happen to the benefit of the people of the community first and foremost," he said.
Grauer, Johns and Vozick wanted undeveloped land on the retirement community's campus reserved for affordable housing.
Commission member Gary Wheeler agreed that affordable housing is important, but he didn't want to delay review of the project while the issue gets sorted out.
Shaw said the affordable housing requirement is a "threshold issue" for the project. The undeveloped land on the campus is needed for future expansion of the retirement community, he said. Forcing the foundation to use it for affordable housing "is going to make this project not doable," Shaw said.
Representatives of the foundation contended that the retirement community will attract employees who already live in the Roaring Fork Valley, such as nurses who live in Basalt and Carbondale but currently commute to Aspen. Since the project will be constructed in phases, about 44 employees will be needed for the first phase and another 36 at build-out.
Shaw urged the planning commission not to make affordable housing a condition of approval but just a recommendation. That way the council can debate the issue, he said. The commission honored the request. The motion that won unanimous approval said a portion of the campus should have affordable housing as a "desired use."
The debate over affordable housing will be taken up by the Basalt Town Council at a time to be determined.