Basalt Ballot Question 2B in the November election seeks a simple “yes” or “no” on the town issuing $5 million in bonds to speed a river restoration and park construction project.
But for voters who put some thought into how they cast their ballots, the issue is multilayered and significantly more complex.
Basalt’s “Fix the Fork” effort, as the project is dubbed, is tied to displacing low-income-housing residents at the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park, providing an economic spark for downtown businesses and seeking trust over town taxing powers.
Question 2B won’t seek approval for the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park redevelopment. Instead, it will seek lump-sum funding to accelerate the work.
The town government already has started a $7.1 million redevelopment of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park area. It’s using $2 million of existing funds to begin and wants to issue $5 million in bonds to speed the overall projects.
“The primary advantage is we get the work done sooner and probably at less cost to taxpayers,” said Town Manager Mike Scanlon.
State law forbids him from actively campaigning for or against the ballot question, but he’s allowed to provide factual information.
The planned work entails moving out residents of the 35 occupied trailers at the Pan and Fork, restoring the Roaring Fork River to its natural conditions in that stretch, easing flood potential, building a park on the portion of land the town owns and potentially preparing the other half of the property for development.
Proponents of the project say the town will end up with better access to the Roaring Fork River.
“It is time that Basalt lived up to its reputation as a river town,” said a campaign letter sent out by Friends of the Fork, a campaign issue committee set up to support the ballot question.
Project will proceed regardless of vote
The town is undertaking the work whether or not voters approve the bonds, Scanlon said. The vote will determine if the work is completed in one to three years rather than four to six years, he said.
The town has removed five trailers already. It has reached fiscal settlements with occupants of 11 trailers. Additional residents will be relocating soon.
About $4.1 million of the funds, or 58 percent, would be spent on relocating the residents and restoring the river, according to the town’s Fix the Fork website. Another 13 percent would be spent on park development, and 10 percent would go to road improvements needed in connection with the project at Two Rivers Road and Midland Spur Road. The remaining 19 percent, or $1.35 million, would go to redevelopment site improvements.
The relocation of Pan and Fork residents, mostly Latinos, has rankled some Basalt-area residents. Judy Royer, who doesn’t live in the town but is engaged in civic issues there, chastised town officials at a recent public forum for displacing Pan and Fork residents.
“These families have lived here for decades,” Royer said. “You are pulling the rug out from under them.
“I find it unconscionable.”
Town provides financial packages
Scanlon and Mayor Jacque Whitsitt have defended the town’s actions at various public meetings. First, they note, consultants on river behavior have determined that a large share of the Pan and Fork is at peril of being swept away by flooding. The town’s rallying cry has been getting residents “out of harm’s way.”
The town created a River Master Plan between 1999 and 2002, which outlines steps Basalt must take to ease flooding risk. Relocating the Pan and Fork residents was among the action items.
Whitsitt has noted in prior interviews that the town is doing more than legally required to assist the residents. The town came up with a formula to provide financial packages for displaced renters and owners. It factors in household size, time at the trailer park and whether the owner will take care of removing the trailer. Some owners are getting compensation packages of as much as $22,800.
Scanlon estimated there are between 225 to 250 residents at the park. In a previous public meeting, he said only a “handful” are documented. It’s difficult to help people find alternative housing when they cannot prove they are in the country legally, he said.
The town intends for the financial packages to be used for renting new apartments or for downpayments on new homes.
Critics, including some Pan and Fork residents, aren’t buying that the relocation is necessary. Town residents Jim Paussa and Keith Ikeda penned an upcoming op-ed piece for The Aspen Times that urges the town to slow down the process, engage the community and collectively decide the vision for the trailer park and its occupants. They want the town to issue the bonds and fix the river when the community is ready with a plan.
“We are asking the voters to reject the bond, help us stop removing residents from the trailer park, and participate in an honest collaborative process to make a new plan — a plan that shows compassion for merchants and Latinos in Old Town,” Paussa and Ikeda wrote.
If the Pan and Fork residents must be moved for their safety, some believe the town and the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. should have provided alternative housing for them.
Parts of bigger plan lacking
Scanlon acknowledged that the town could be criticized in this election for not having a more complete plan on how the site will be used. The component that’s up in the air is the future of about 2.5 acres of the Pan and Fork site owned by the nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. (The town government already owns the other 2.5 acres, closest to the river.) The nonprofit envisioned selling the land to a hotel developer, but the plan is on hold. Town officials have backed off touting the site as a hotel that could draw people to downtown restaurants and shops. Whitsitt said in prior interviews that the entire site can be a riverside park if that’s what the residents want.
Scanlon said the Fix the Fork project contemplates spending $400,000 to $600,000 to remove the nonprofit’s property from the floodplain. That work won’t need to be undertaken if the property is purchased from the nonprofit, he said, and the funds saved could be applied to the purchase.
“All I’m doing is trying to create enough avenues for the community,” Scanlon said. The town needs to know by May or June if that portion of the site will be a park or a hotel and commercial development, he said.
Advancing on the Pan and Fork project is a vital first step for the town to resolve downtown redevelopment issues, according to Scanlon.
Town doesn’t intend to raise taxes
Take away the complex debate over the plight of the trailer-park residents and the uncertainty over development, and the ballot question still leaves a financial angle. The town government says an existing sales tax dedicated to parks, open space and trails would raise enough revenue to pay off the $5 million in bonds. Nevertheless, the ballot question says the indebtedness may require the town to raise property taxes.
“State law says you have to have that in there,” Scanlon said.
While there is no guarantee that property taxes wouldn’t be required, Scanlon said the fiscal planning has been very conservative.
“The economy would have to change drastically for us to use property taxes to pay this off,” he said.
The campaign over the issue has been low-key. Friends of the Fork is promoting passage. Paussa has been one of the few Basalt residents actively speaking out against it. One Basalt resident said at a public meeting that she senses apathy among many town residents.