Aspen School District moves forward with housing |

Aspen School District moves forward with housing

Katie Redding
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” The Aspen School District moved forward with plans to build at its Woody Creek property on Tuesday, approving a contract with a land planner/architect for the next design phase.

The proposal continues the district’s relationship with Aspen and Crested Butte-based Elk Mountain Planning Group, which won the bid to design the first phase of the proposed project at West Ranch. The proposal, which covers services from drawings to construction management ” but would bill planning services at a separate hourly rate ” estimates costs at just over a half-million dollars. However, it also noted that the first phase was completed for an amount below its estimate.

Even as they approved the contract on Tuesday, school board members said they’re still working to address Pitkin County’s concerns over building additional housing at West Ranch. On Thursday, Superintendent Diana Sirko and two school-board members plan to meet with Cindy Houben, Pitkin County’s director of community development, to discuss alternate building sites.

“It’s a conversation to say ‘what options are there?'” said Charla Belinski, president of the school board. “We’re looking for real, viable options,” she said.

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In the November election, voters approved a $12 million teacher housing bond sale, roughly half of which the district earmarked for the construction of six duplexes, or 12 units, at West Ranch. The property already houses 10 units for school district employees.

However, in two meetings between the entities, several Pitkin County commissioners have raised questions about whether or not the district can, or should, build additional housing outside the urban growth boundary. In response, the school board has pointed to state law that says it does not need to submit itself to the county land-use process.

Because of uncertainty around what the planning process for the project will look like, wrote Elk Mountain Planning Group President Julie Ann Woods, she did not include an estimate for planning fees in her proposal, instead proposing an hourly rate for planning services.

“We still do not have any idea what type of process Pitkin County may require the school district to go through,” she wrote. “You have been real clear that you would like to work with the County on the approval of the project, but are also prepared to move forward independently from the County, with the authority to do so as a special district (upon the advice of your attorney).”

Woods did anticipate at least two neighborhood meetings as part of the planning process: one with current West Ranch residents and one with the Woody Creek Caucus, “who we’ve heard,” wrote Woods, “are likely to oppose the project.”

Also on Tuesday, members of the district’s financial advisory board encouraged the district to begin purchasing housing soon with the remaining bond money. Several board members noted that deals are starting to emerge in the market, and that purchasing 10 to 12 units by July might require time.

School board member ” and real estate agent ” Ernie Fyrwald suggested that the district bid low on current prices, rather than waiting for list prices to drop further on their own.

The Aspen School District plans to sell bonds authorized by the November election starting next week.

And so far, the market is cooperating.

Underwriter Terry Casey of RBC Capital Markets, who advised the Aspen School Board on Tuesday along with Dan O’Connell, noted that bond interest rates have generally risen since last year.

“Once December started, [the market] was just awful,” Casey said.

“It’s a good time to access the market right now, if we can,” O’Connell said.

The bond question passed in November promised to sell bonds at an interest rate no higher than 6 percent on average. Casey expected the district might be able to sell bonds, in the current climate, at around 4.5 percent interest.

But both men noted that the market is still volatile and warned that everything could change by the time the bonds are sold next week ” if, for example, a major international event unsettled markets in the meantime.

“Really, you just never know,” Casey said.

The district’s credit rating should also aid bond sales. Casey expected the district to keep its high Aa2 rating, but said he should receive confirmation from Moody’s Investors Service this week.

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