Basalt uses down time for rewrite on growth
December 26, 2008
BASALT ” Basalt appears destined to take a page out of Pitkin County’s book in its efforts to manage growth.
The town government is working with consultant Alan Richman on a growth management process patterned after Pitkin County’s system. Although details aren’t final, it appears Basalt will adopt a system in which development applications are assigned a score based on providing community amenities such as affordable housing and parks and meeting certain standards. Projects that meet a minimum threshold score and out-compete other projects earn priority in the approval process.
The Town Council approved a surprise nine-month moratorium on most new development applications in June after declaring an emergency. Since then, it’s been working on tougher growth regulations.
Council members defended the timing of tougher rules even though the development industry is already reeling from the national recession.
“I think it’s the perfect time,” Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt said.
Developers are facing difficulties borrowing money for projects, so it is a slow time, she said. The moratorium isn’t slowing activity that market forces haven’t already slowed, in her view.
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Councilman Chris Seldin said he doesn’t believe that now is the time for Basalt to approve a bunch of new projects in hopes of priming the economic pump. Developers tend to sit on approvals when the market is slow, then build when it heats back up.
“When it does, we tend to see an explosion of building activity and start to hear concerns that development is out of control,” Seldin said. “Willits, Shadowrock, and the intense building activity seen in Aspen over the past few years illustrate this trend. But once an approval is out the door we can’t take it back, so there’s little we can do to control that explosive growth when it occurs.”
Whitsitt said she believes it is the responsibility of council members to do what is best for Basalt 10, 15 and 25 years down the road rather than assist the private sector in a current hard time. The best way to help the community, she said, is to make sure regulations are in place that coax the right kind of growth in the long run.
The development industry is taking a wait-and-see attitude about Basalt’s new growth management system.
Raul Gawrys is a Basalt architect and planner who hasn’t been shy about expressing frustration over the amount of time the Basalt government takes to review projects. That is a common complaint among planners and property owners.
If Basalt adopts a growth management system with clear cut criteria, it might be a simpler, quicker and more objective process, Gawrys said.
“I think it might speed things up,” he said. “If all this stuff is in black and white, maybe my meetings are shorter.”
He criticized the current process as being too subjective, with the planning staff presenting a moving target of issues to be considered.
“You never know what you’re going to get. It’s like that famous box of chocolates,” Gawrys said, referring to the line from the movie “Forrest Gump.”
The current growth review process also “punishes” creativity, he said. That same type of creativity in providing community benefits, like river-front parkland, could be rewarded in a system like Pitkin County’s.
On the other hand, Gawrys is somewhat concerned that Basalt might design too complicated of a growth management system ” creating even longer delays in the review process.
Mark Kwiecienski, a Basalt resident who is currently seeking approval for a small residential project, said he isn’t advocating a change or the status quo, but is interested in Basalt’s growth management debate as someone concerned about community issues.
“I don’t know the details of the new system being proposed; however, I hope that the new system recognizes that Basalt is not Aspen and that the system takes care of Basalt property owners and citizens rather than making solving Aspen and Pitkin County’s problems its primary objective,” Kwiecienski said.
If Basalt’s new system creates a competition for points based on subjective criteria, property owners might feel like they have even less freedom than they do now, Kwiecienski said. On the other hand, Basalt is so small and its development proposals are so unique that a competitive system to allocate development rights might be the best procedure, he said.
“Rewriting any code is fraught with controversy and this case will probably demonstrate that to an AAA-plus level,” Kwiecienski said.
Basalt’s moratorium expires in March and the council wants to be ready with its new growth regulations by then. If that’s impossible, the moratorium can be extended.