Amid criticism from both pro-growth and no-growth factions, the Basalt town government has altered a downtown planning process to try to ease concerns and reach conclusions.
The new process adds a layer, so it runs the risk of becoming more complicated and taking more time to complete.
Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon said the town will create a “committee of 10” to help determine what downtown property should be developed and what should remain open space.
The committee will hold roughly eight weeks of meetings after it is formed and then forward “two big ideas” to the community sometime around Thanksgiving. The Town Council will be asked to review and endorse one of the ideas by the end of the year.
“In the end, it really comes down to two things — how much green space and how much development,” Scanlon said.
That’s caused consternation in Basalt recently.
Group voices concerns
More than a dozen residents attended the July 29 Town Council meeting to express concerns that the board was pursuing its own agenda rather than following the alleged will of the people. The critics noted that town residents voted overwhelmingly in November to approve issuing bonds to relocate residents of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park, work in the Roaring Fork River to ease flooding threats and prepare half of the site for redevelopment.
Later in the winter, the town invited people to draw on aerial-view maps where they want to see development and what should remain open space. More than 300 maps were submitted. The entries were distilled into three options and were put to an informal, online vote. The option that “won” preserves Lions Park in the downtown core as open space and allows limited development on the Pan and Fork site. The alternative also features a hotel on a redeveloped site that Clark’s Market vacated in June.
The town government already owns 2.9 acres of the 5.3-acre former Pan and Fork site. The town always planned to convert its property into a riverside park.
Some residents became alarmed when council members indicated that they would be interested in acquiring more of the remaining 2.4 acres at the Pan and Fork site and possibly preserve some of it as open space. No decisions were made, but the suggestion produced howls of protest.
The interest in more open space appears to be “a right turn” that goes against the direction set by residents at the polls and in the planning process, resident Brian Dillard said at the July 29 council meeting.
“I’m just asking you to honor the direction,” Dillard said to the applause of the contingent that attended the meeting.
Anti-growth voices emerge
Another faction has weighed in and accused the town of being too aggressive in the pursuit of development. Gerry Terwilliger has claimed in multiple letters to local newspapers, emails to officials and comments at public meetings that the town’s planning process was flawed because participants couldn’t reject all proposals as too oriented toward development.
Terwilliger also objected last week that the town is preparing part of the Pan and Fork site for development before it even determines whether the majority of residents support development there. The planning process wasn’t scientific or inclusive, he said.
Additional residents of the area have written letters to local newspapers in support of preserving more open space at the former Pan and Fork site.
Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said there is a misperception that the council has set any course — let alone a course that goes against public sentiment. Some members of the board merely indicated they want to talk about keeping more of the Pan and Fork site as open space, she said. They didn’t say they wanted the entire site left as open space as some critics have suggested, Whitsitt said.
Whitsitt also challenged the interpretations of the November vote as a pledge that buildings will be constructed.
“I didn’t read any commitment in the ballot language,” she said. “Redevelopment” doesn’t necessarily mean buildings, she said, contending redevelopment could mean a park.
Whitsitt said it is important for the public process to be completed. The council will listen to that input, she said. She stopped short of saying the council will endorse what emerges from the planning process.
“In the end, the Town Council has to make a decision, for sure,” she said.
Narrow differences, big schism?
Scanlon said it appears to him that there is a community schism over a relatively small amount of development. He said his interpretation after talking to different parties involved is that the difference of opinion is over about 5,000 square feet of development at the Pan and Fork site.
Scanlon followed up an interview with The Aspen Times with an email last weekend accepting the blame for the community confusion over planning for the Pan and Fork and other downtown parcels.
“We are sorry we caused any confusion as to park versus development in the downtown area,” Scanlon wrote. “What the citizens have talked about and agreed to will be the framework for future planning.”
He noted that 57 percent of respondents supported the option for limited development at Pan and Fork and preservation of Lions Park in the town’s informal, online survey. That direction will guide the future planning process, he said.
“Citizens have, will and will always be key to our downtown’s success,” Scanlon wrote. “To think we created the perception that they were not important is entirely my fault.”
Scientific survey planned
To make sure a broad perspective of public input is considered, the town will hire a consultant to conduct a scientific survey this fall.
Meanwhile, it has to create the committee of 10. The group will include two members of the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission and two members of the mayor’s Cabinet, a group that regularly meets with Whitsitt and Scanlon to discuss issues. The Town Council will appoint the other six members. Whitsitt said she would suggest that each council member suggest a person to be appointed. She won’t suggest anyone.
Scanlon said he doesn’t believe the appointment process will become politicized among the pro- and anti-growth factions. The committee’s work will be reviewed by the community, he said. He views the group’s work as an opportunity to put more meat on the process.