Differences abound among Basalt mayoral candidates Whitsitt and Stevens | AspenTimes.com

Differences abound among Basalt mayoral candidates Whitsitt and Stevens

In many municipal elections for political office, voters are forced to pull teeth to draw distinctions between candidates. Not so in this year's Basalt mayoral race.

The race pits the sitting mayor, Jacque Whitsitt, against former mayor and current Councilman Rick Stevens. They both have extensive track records in Basalt politics. Whitsitt has served for 16 years; Stevens has served for 14 years.

Stevens was mayor from 1994 to 2004, first getting appointed after winning election to council (a vacancy was created when the mayor resigned) then winning two additional terms as mayor. He successfully ran for council in 2010.

Whitsitt was first elected to the council in 1996 and was re-elected in 2000. She sat out four years, then successfully ran for council again in 2008. She was elected mayor in 2012.

While both obviously want what they believe is best for Basalt, their vision for achieving it is different. In the past few months, Whitsitt and Stevens have been on opposite ends of major votes. Here is a look at those issues:

Pan and Fork citizens' petition

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Stevens voted with the council majority Jan. 27 to reject a citizens' petitions calling on the town to purchase 2.3 acres of property at the Pan and Fork site from the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. The board voted 6-1 to reject the petitions, as advised by Town Attorney Tom Smith. He said the petition, as worded, was legally deficient.

The petition organizers collected signatures from about 400 qualified Basalt voters over a 10-day period. In addition to urging the town to buy the property, the petition asked the town to limit development to one-half acre closest to the Rocky Mountain Institute's building and add the remaining 1.8 acres to a park that the town is building along the Roaring Fork River at the site.

Whitsitt was the only council member to vote to put the issue to an election. When that vote failed, she made a new motion to have the council craft different questions for the April ballot. She said her goal was to honor the spirit of the citizens' petition while crafting legally acceptable questions. That motion failed 5-2, with Whitsitt in support and Stevens against.

"I cannot ignore this citizens' petition," Whitsitt said at the meeting.

Stevens countered that there were just as many people opposed to placing the question on the ballot as there were in support.

"I've talked to 400 people who feel different, maybe more," he said.

The council majority said they felt they were making progress on planning and future uses of the 2.3 acres owned by Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. The development scenario once ranged as high as 150,000 square feet, but was shot down by citizens and elected officials. A current range of 35,000 to 75,000 square feet has been discussed.

Whitsitt is on record for supporting more park and less development. She is opposed to residential uses because she said complaints from adjacent residents would severely limit use of public spaces. She envisions a park and public uses that will attract people to Basalt and help revitalize downtown.

Stevens has expressed support for more development than sought by the petition. He said he wants to use the property to revitalize downtown and "create opportunities for our children and grandchildren."

"A half acre doesn't for me," he said Jan. 27.

No formal application is before the board so a square footage hasn't been approved.

Willits Town Center

Stevens and Whitsitt were on opposite ends of the spectrum on Jan. 12 as well, when the council reviewed a proposal to expand Willits Town Center by 91,000 square feet and share future sales tax revenue with the developer.

The owner of the commercial and residential project, Mariner Real Estate Management, proposed to add 59,500 square feet of retail space and 31,500 square feet of residential space to the project, which Basalt approved in 2001 for about one-half million square feet of development. Mariner also proposed two mechanisms for raising money to fund development. One method was sharing sales tax revenue generated at Willits above the 2015 benchmark. The other method was adding a new public improvement fee on sales of goods and services at Willits.

Stevens voted with the majority who approved the 91,000-square-foot expansion 5-2. Whitsitt was opposed.

Whitsitt was with the majority who voted 4-3 to reject sales tax revenue sharing and the public improvement fee.

"I don't think the community has the stomach for subsidizing a billionaire, and I'm sticking to that," Whitsitt said.

She said she supported Mariner building out the remainder of the 500,000 square feet before the town approved more. She said the town should assess how the midvalley absorbs an already approved development before adding more.

Stevens said sharing sales taxes with the developer was important to accelerate build-out of Willits. He estimated the town had invested $1.8 million in the infrastructure at Willits and he wanted to find a way to get some of that money returned for other town projects. He credited the sales tax revenue sharing proposal as a "future-oriented approach."

Stevens told a crowd that was mostly opposed to the Willits proposal at the Jan. 12 meeting that he wasn't concerned about how they felt about the vote.

"If you don't care how I vote, that's fine. If you like how I vote, that's fine. But I have to vote how I feel, and I really feel strongly that this needs to go forward," he said. He was on the losing side of the 4-3 vote.

Affordable-housing requirements

The council was split Oct. 27 on a proposal to reduce the affordable-housing requirements levied on commercial and residential projects. The council voted 4-3 to lower affordable-housing mitigation for residential projects from 35 percent of the total square footage to 25 percent. For commercial projects, the town lowered mitigation from 25 percent of the employees generated to 15 percent.

The staff said the reductions were sought to bring Basalt's requirements in line with those of Eagle County. Lowering the requirement might also generate construction of affordable-housing units, according to a staff presentation.

Stevens voted with the majority to lower the requirements. Whitsitt was opposed.

Whitsitt said she didn't think matching Eagle County's requirement would stop jurisdiction shopping among developers seeking the least onerous regulations. Developers will build where they find the cheapest land, she said.

Stevens has said on multiple occasions that he wants to see affordable housing get built.

There was a third candidate in the mayor's race temporarily. Bernie Grauer, a current councilman, took out a petition to run for mayor but decided against a bid. In a letter explaining his decision, he wrote that it would allow the community to have a "clear choice between a candidate who supports aggressive growth and development, Rick Stevens, and one who promotes low growth and slow development, the current mayor, Jacque Whitsitt."

The election is April 5, but ballots will be mailed out the week of March 14.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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