Angry crowd cools down after grilling council
October 29, 2014
An angry, standing-room-only crowd stormed the Basalt Town Council meeting Tuesday night, but a good share of audience members departed on better terms after grilling their elected officials about downtown revitalization.
"It hurt a little bit at the beginning but it feels a better now," said Mayor Jacque Whitsitt at the end of the 90-minute meeting. Whitsitt was the target of many audience comments, some of which Councilman Bernie Grauer labeled "harsh language and personal attacks."
The crowd, which numbered about 50 in the council chambers and spilled into the hall, was riled over Whitsitt's statement to Aspen Public Radio on Friday that she thought a majority of the council and "definitely" a majority of residents wouldn't want to see development on the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site block public access to the Roaring Fork River.
Her comments were interpreted by several audience members to mean the council will ignore a residents' planning committee's ongoing effort to advise the council on what type of development should be allowed on a handful of key downtown sites.
The town purchased part of the Pan and Fork site for preservation as a park. Development was envisioned on the other half, closest to Two Rivers Road. Several audience members interpreted Whitsitt's comments to mean that she wants the entire parcel to be a park.
Architect and Basalt resident Larry Yaw claimed Whitsitt's radio interview was "treacherous in a number of ways." He asked her to remove herself from any future vote on the use of the Pan and Fork site.
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The tongue-lashing continued from another 15 speakers.
Chris Touchette, chairman of the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission, scolded Whitsitt for doing some "real harm" with her radio comments.
Downtown property owner Norm Clasen said he fears great ideas produced by the community during an extensive downtown planning process will "get killed in the end."
"This council is failing us, badly failing this community," Clasen said.
Laura Clasen said Basalt's past no-growth policies have led to the loss of vitality downtown. "That's what let Carbondale eat our lunch," she said.
However, several audience members referred to businesses and their customers fleeing to the Willits Town Center part of Basalt. An earlier Town Council approved about 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space in Willits. As it is building out, several businesses formerly in downtown have moved to be close to the anchor tenant, Whole Foods Market. Meanwhile, foot traffic is sagging downtown and storefront vacancies are soaring.
After audience members spoke for about an hour, some demanded that the council outline their positions on the Pan and Fork. The board members said they planned to offer their comments all along. They said they want the residents' group, the Downtown Area Advisory Committee, to complete its work and hand them a recommendation, which is expected to come late this year or in early 2015.
Through their various comments, the council members vowed they would approach the issue with open minds.
"I don't have an agenda to make it all a park," Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said. "I don't have an agenda to develop it, either."
Former Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Kinsley, who was in the thick of the Aspen area's growth battles in the 1970s and into the '80s, first as a resident, then as an elected official, said the Basalt meeting started with a lot of anger but turned around.
"It felt like a big hug," he told the audience, referring to the end of the meeting.
He urged the audience not to think of the council as "them" but as "us." Kinsley also asked the crowd to acknowledge the council for working on a solution "that works for most of us." His request produced a cheer from many in the audience.
However, not all were feeling good about the meeting. Kelly Alford, president of the Basalt Downtown Business Association, said it felt like "a house of mirrors."
"We're all here because of things you said, Madame Mayor," Alford said.
Editor's note: An article in Thursday's Aspen Times will cover the council members' positions on the planning process.