Basalt has three politically savvy veterans running for mayor in the April 7 election who wasted no time carving out general messages in the early stages of the campaign.
So what are their big ideas?
Bill Kane, a former Basalt town manager, wants to create a better process to resolve potentially volatile issues. He wants to avoid the bitter political rivalries that exploded over future use of former the Pan and Fork property.
“We used a process that was reminiscent of trench warfare from the First World War,” Kane said at a candidates’ forum Monday night.
Rob Leavitt, a former councilman, stressed he is running for mayor to make a bigger impact on the growth issues facing the midvalley. He serves on the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission and has expressed concerns that a proposed master plan update allows too much growth on top of what is already approved. He is aiming for “small, tasteful developments.”
“We can’t build our way out of a growth problem,” Leavitt said.
Current Councilman Bill Infante has emphasized the need for regional solutions to common problems. He pointed out that he has approached representatives of other governments to seek information in an effort to better serve Basalt. Infante noted his approach resulted him being “admonished” by other board members for getting out ahead of the group in his representation of the town. He said at the forum his actions should be welcomed rather than frowned upon.
“Frankly, I think it’s incumbent on every member of council to develop the connections within our community, to develop a sense of identity and common purpose but to reach more broadly to communities up and down the valley, the counties with which we share this incredible Roaring Fork and with our state,” he said.
The three men debated for two hours Monday evening in a forum arranged by Roaring Fork Weekly Journal. The exchanges were extremely polite and included lots of joking around. About 50 people crammed into the conference room at Element Hotel to listen.
When the candidates were asked how they felt about the project that has emerged on the Pan and Fork site after eight years of debate, Kane said the ends are fine even if the means were tainted. A development group has a plan before the council for a mix of commercial and residential development and sale of about 1 acre of land for expansion of the Basalt River Park (see related story on page A3).
Kane said something had to be done with the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park because of the humanitarian and environmental issues it posed. However, nobody wants to go through that type of a process again, he said.
“We relied on the public-hearing process to resolve the issues,” he said. “There is no public process worse than the public hearing.”
Citizens only get three minutes to comment at formal public hearings. Elected officials sit with “stone faces” and there is no dialogue, he said.
“We need to talk to one another,” Kane said. “We need to get away from this adversarial, bitter, rivalry politics.”
Basalt is on the cusp of great things, he stressed. It is developing more of an identity in arts and culture. Its growth boundaries are defined by open space purchases and the master plan. It’s the home to numerous nonprofit organizations. Now, the town just needs everyone to “row in the same direction,” he said.
When asked if a moratorium was a legitimate tool to control growth, none of the three endorsed the method. Infante said regional problems require regional solutions.
“I don’t see that we’re going to manage growth by ourselves,” he said.
Infante added that it is difficult for him to review individual projects in Basalt and determine if 100, 200 or 300 units are appropriate without looking at the bigger picture.
“What I do know is we are not speaking to the communities up and down the valley, we are not speaking to Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties,” Infante said. “We are not talking to the state to address this and all the other issues that we share in any comprehensive way.”
Infante has been on the Basalt Town Council for almost two years. He was critical of prior administrations’ positions on regional issues, such as development of Ace Lane’s Tree Farm proposal. The project in the El Jebel area was approved 2-1 by Eagle County commissioners after a divisive community debate. Basalt asked Eagle County to deny the project so that Lane would have been forced to apply for annexation into the town. That would have provided the town with leverage in the approval process. Eagle County denied Basalt’s request and proceeded with its review. Basalt submitted comments for the commissioners to consider.
“I find that project tragic; tragic not because of what he’s building, tragic because we are not in the process,” Infante said. “We chose to divorce ourselves from the discussion about what is going to be built. How can we divorce ourselves from discussions and planning (connectivity), planning unity? How can we possibly chart a way forward if we remove ourselves willfully from these discussions? It’s the connections that I lament haven’t been strong.”
On growth-related issues, Leavitt stressed throughout the evening the need to be discerning. He said he is concerned about traffic, parking and outdoor resources such as hiking trails and fishing holes becoming overrun. Learning on the Planning and Zoning Commission that 1,000 units are approved but unbuilt “kind of got my heart rate going,” he said.
Too often, the government process focuses on asking constituents how much development should be built on a parcel rather than if there should be development, Leavitt said. He wants to start asking the “right” questions and feels that is best done by the mayor.
Despite the flaws, the process on the Pan and Fork worked to create a better project, in Leavitt’s eyes. The initial proposal was for a 150,000-square-foot condominium hotel between Two Rivers Road and the Roaring Fork River. The current proposal has just shy of 56,000 square feet of development.
“The process was slow — agonizingly slow and painful — but in the long run we came out with a much better product,” he said, noting a bigger park and views to the river.
“I personally don’t think we need any massive developments,” he said. “We need small, tasteful developments in our town.”