El Jebel Tree Farm proposal generates debate
July 1, 2009
EL JEBEL- Dozens of growth foes and supporters sparred Tuesday over developer Ace Lane’s proposal to build 319 residences and about 96,000 square feet of commercial space in El Jebel.
The Eagle County commissioners listened to more than 40 speakers offer their opinions on Lane’s Tree Farm project for more than two hours. The commissioners didn’t reach a conclusion and gave few clues to their feelings about the project. They tabled discussion until July 21.
The hearing in El Jebel produced impassioned speeches by people on both sides of the issue. Proponents credited Lane and his team for proposing a project that will be energy efficient, pedestrian friendly and provide a much-needed boost for the valley’s ailing economy.
Foes countered that the project will add too many people and create too much traffic in an area already struggling with growth.
Duane Stewart, a builder in the valley, chided growth foes for erecting obstacles and driving up the price of development.
“I’m sick and tired of it,” he said.
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Stewart, like several speakers, said development is inevitable, so government might as well ensure that high-quality projects like Lane’s get approved. “You’re not going to stop it,” he said.
Longtime Basalt-area resident John Spencer, a Basalt trustee in the 1970s and into the ’80s, suggested that opponents were hypocrites for trying to prevent other people from moving to the valley once the opponents were already here. He said if the town hadn’t approved subdivisions like Elk Run, many of the growth foes wouldn’t be in town now.
“Did the traffic problem start before you came or after you came?” Spencer asked.
Growth foes were unfazed by the criticism. Former Basalt councilwoman Anne Freedman claimed the midvalley residents who won’t benefit economically from Lane’s project don’t support it. She told the three county commissioners that she supported them for their campaign stances for slow, reasonable growth.
“This is not limited. This is not sensible,” Freedman said.
Missouri Heights resident Ken Ransford rallied numerous opponents to the meeting via an e-mail campaign. He noted that the developer’s own traffic consultant says the project will generate 3,700 addition vehicle trips per day when it is completed. That can hardly be considered transit-oriented development, he said.
Numerous speakers said there are already too many residential units approved but unbuilt in the midvalley, along with potential commercial space. Basalt has approved about 500,000 square feet of development in the Willits Town Center, across Highway 82 from Lane’s property. Much of Willits is undeveloped. Construction of a Whole Foods Market was abandoned last fall, leaving a hole in the ground.
Former Basalt councilwoman Laurie Dows lobbied for slow growth at an appropriate time. “We’ve got a hole over in Willits. Let’s fill in that hole first.”
Current Basalt officials levied some of the sharpest criticism of Lane’s proposal. Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt labeled the project “possibly the straw that breaks the camel’s back based on traffic and population.”
Councilman Chris Seldin said a recent town survey showed residents favor preserving Basalt’s small-town character. The key to achieving that goal is controlling the rate of growth. Basalt approved regulations this year that allows approval of 32 free-market residences per year. Lane’s project would be exempt from that regulation if it is approved by Eagle County. Basalt residents want the project denied so that Lane must seek annexation and approval from the town.
Seldin said the town was better positioned to slow the pace of Lane’s project. “It might take time, but that’s the point,” he said.
Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer challenged the assertion that Lane is proposing a “green” project. The bottom line, she said, is that development isn’t environmentally friendly.
“Green is not paving, and green is not generating 3,700 vehicles trips per day,” she said.
The Basalt council had town attorney Tom Smith make a formal presentation proposing the project be denied on various legal grounds.
The county commissioners indicated they have a significant amount of deliberation before they are ready to vote. Commissioner Jon Stavney indicated he has numerous questions on the merits of the project for both Lane’s team and Basalt officials.
He asked if the project is actually dense enough. He also indicated he will press Basalt on why it would press for annexation if Eagle County addresses its concerns during the review.
“Is annexation into the town of Basalt a de facto ‘We want to kill the project?'” he asked.
Commissioner Sara Fisher also said she needs more discussion to understand Basalt’s position.
Commissioner Peter Runyon hinted at concerns over Eagle County approving an urban-level density that Lane is proposing. He said there is a lot of approved-but-unbuilt development “in the pipeline” in Eagle County and the towns in its boundaries. “Let’s see how we do then add to the pipe,” he said.
The commissioners will hold a second meeting July 21 in El Jebel.