El Jebel developer fires back at project’s critics
July 22, 2009
EL JEBEL – Midvalley developer Ace Lane accused Basalt officials and other critics of his El Jebel project for thinking small about the world’s problems during a public hearing held by the Eagle County commissioners Tuesday night.
In an impassioned speech, Lane challenged the county commissioners not to get sucked into the business-as-usual debates that surround large land-use applications. He claimed his project will set a new bar in the Roaring Fork Valley for energy-efficient, environmentally friendly development – if they take a chance on his vision. He likened his team to auto industry executives who pushed for development of low-polluting vehicles like the Toyota Prius despite skepticism.
“My constituency is the world,” Lane said. “My life has led me to this vision.”
He said he traveled Europe extensively studying “why it works” – why people greet each other, why they spend so much time on foot and on bicycles, why it retains so much character after so long. He is trying to recapture the same feel in the unlikely locale of El Jebel. Lane wants approval for 319 residences and about 96,000 square feet of commercial space across Highway 82 from the Willits Town Center.
His project, called the Tree Farm, would feature a significant solar farm, energy efficiency well beyond building codes, mixed uses that allow people to live next to their shops, trails and connections to the bus system.
It’s ironic, Lane said, that in a valley with so many great thinkers and think tanks, his project is facing opposition from slow-growth proponents and getting treated like a run-of-the-mill project.
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“Here we have a chance to do it together but we’re fighting one another,” he said.
The county commissioners didn’t vote on the project. Instead they were more like spectators in a boxing match between Lane and Basalt town government officials.
Basalt Town Council members and Town Manager Bill Kane hammered away at the point that the county’s approval of urban-level development on the town’s fringe would unravel their efforts at growth control.
This slow-growth council, trying to atone for what they perceive as sins of the past by their predecessors, adopted a growth management system this year that will allow approvals for only 32 free-market residences per year.
Kane said that process was designed to prevent the schools from being overrun, the sewer plants from being overwhelmed and the roads crammed.
Councilman Chris Seldin said Lane’s project would realistically “extend the town” even if it is approved in unincorporated Eagle County. Tree Farm residents would stretch the town’s infrastructure even though they aren’t town residents.
Lane’s project has a lot of merit, but so do other projects proposed in the town, Seldin said. By phasing those projects, the community benefits.
“We can’t approve them all at once,” Seldin said. “That would violate the principles that we were elected on.”
Kane said Lane’s proposal for 96,000 square feet of commercial space also troubles town officials. The Willits Town Center, on hold because of the economic downturn, is battling to secure Whole Foods Market as an anchor tenant. The outcome could settle the fate of the large commercial center, he said.
Adding Lane’s commercial space across the highway “puts us in kind of a tailspin,” Kane said.
All seven town officials members presented a united front asking the county commissioners to deny the project, so that they could work with Lane during their own review of his project.
Lane had been silent and let his development team talk during previous hearings on his project before the Roaring Fork Regional Planning and Zoning Commission and county commissioners. The Basalt presentation forced him to break his silence.
“There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen here,” Lane said. He suggested that Basalt officials should exit the kitchen and let Eagle County decide.
The commissioners intend to do just that on Sept. 1, when they will resume their hearing at 5:30 p.m. Chairwoman Sara Fisher said that meeting will likely be the conclusion of the first round of review. A project needs three rounds of approvals to proceed.