Basalt candidates outline their differences on growth issues
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Basalt’s two mayoral candidates likely solidified their bases and gave undecided voters clear, concise visions of their positions and differences, particularly on growth, in a debate Thursday night.
Incumbent Jacque Whitsitt, who is a former councilwoman, and challenger Rick Stevens, a current councilman and former mayor, outlined their difference for a crowd of about 60 people without getting nasty.
Whitsitt said she and Stevens agree on all the “apple pie” issues but “when it comes to development, we’re almost always on the opposite side of the road.”
Whitsitt said she wants to take a cautious approach to growth because she is hearing concerns from residents that they want to preserve Basalt’s small town character. The council acts like it is still coming out of a recession, she said, pointing to the approval of an additional 91,000 square feet of commercial and residential space at Willits Town Center. She said she preferred to see the existing 500,000 square feet of space get built before approving more.
Stevens said the town must update the way it governs, letting go of old models and adopting new ones. The old model was expecting development to pay for everything. The new method is public-private partnerships, he said. The profit margins on development aren’t very high anymore on development, he said.
“You can’t just rely on developers to get you everything you need,” Stevens said. “It isn’t working.”
Differences on development approval
As an example of how the town needs to work with developers, he pointed to an expansion of the Roaring Fork Club that was turned down by the council several years ago. The proposal included 57 affordable housing units, he said, noting it was a lost opportunity.
“We need to stop thinking about the fear of growth, the fear of traffic, the fear of all these things,” Stevens said.
Whitsitt countered that Basalt cannot approve enough development to work its way out of its problems, citing affordable housing.
“The more you approve, the more affordable housing you need,” she said.
The debate was held by Aspen Public Radio and broadcast live from the Basalt Regional Library. Five of the six council candidates also attended the forum. Candidate Auden Schendler had a conflict and couldn’t attend. (For highlights of the council debate, go to http://www.aspentimes.com for a longer version of this story.)
Pan and Fork rises to top
The future of the Pan and Fork site in downtown Basalt came up numerous times and both candidates provided new insights into their thinking.
The town bought half of the property closest to the Roaring Fork River and is developing a park. The nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. bought the half closest to Two Rivers Road. The community is debating and planning the ratio of park to development on that portion.
Whitsitt favors more park and less development. She seized an opportunity to answer criticism from letters to the editor of newspapers that her leadership is lacking and failed to reach a consensus on the Pan and Fork after 18 months of debate.
She acknowledged the debate has “ground in place” but she noted she’s been on the losing side of 5-2 votes. Whitsitt said the failure to move the issue forward faster is the responsibility of her colleagues.
“They had the majority votes,” she said.
If re-elected, Whitsitt said she will seek a facilitator to help the board and community determine the proper uses on the property. The square footage of development is “fine,” she said.
Differences on hotel
The council has directed the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission to allow about 55,000 square feet on the property. The real debate, Whitsitt said, is what gets built on the “keystone gem.”
Steven’s revelation regarding the Pan and Fork site was he sees the need for a “small hotel” that could provide lodging for the clientele that will be visiting Rocky Mountain Institute, a energy efficiency think tank that recently relocated its headquarters from Snowmass to Basalt. He previously said it was inappropriate for the council members to discuss what uses they felt appropriate on the site because it could interfere with the public process.
Whitsitt said she is wary of a hotel at the Pan and Fork because hotels cannot stand on their own. They need a residential component to make the financial numbers work, particularly in a seasonal market like the Roaring Fork Valley, she said.
The five council candidates weren’t able to draw as many distinctions, simply because there were five of them in the debate. Following were some of the highlights:
* Incumbent Councilman Rob Leavitt drew distinctions between an “old Basalt” and “new Basalt.” Old Basalt was a bedroom community, he said, while new Basalt is forging a new identity for the town. Old Basalt approved the Riverwalk development, restricting access to the Fryingpan River on the easterly end of Midland Avenue. New Basalt rejected a plan for 150,000 square feet of the Pan and Fork site along the Roaring Fork River.
* Candidate Jennifer Riffle said she senses in the campaign a strong desire to preserve small-town character. She said she doesn’t support high-end residential development on the Pan and Fork. She wants a “minimum footprint” with a two-story restriction. Only two of the five candidates commented on specific amounts of square footage they could support on the Pan and Fork. Leavitt said he supports about 50,000 square feet in two or three buildings, with a height limit of 34 feet, same as the Rocky Mountain Institute building. Candidate Katie Schwoerer said she supports around 55,000 square feet. Schwoerer said the process worked, paring the amount of contemplated development down from 150,000 square feet. She wants limited commercial development oriented toward the RMI building.
* Candidate Leroy Duroux expressed concern that the town government is spending “extraordinary amounts.” The revenues from the 1 percent sales tax for Parks, Open Space and Trails are committed for several years, he said. He criticized a faction of town for wanting to spend more funds on acquiring the remainder of the Pan and Fork site. It would likely require a property tax increase, he claimed. Schwoerer countered that any property tax hike would have to be approved by residents. She said partnerships with the open space programs of Pitkin and Eagle counties could eliminate the need to request property taxes.
* Council incumbent Herschel Ross said Basalt still hasn’t bounced back from the recession, as evidenced by the empty storefronts on Midland Avenue. “If you go to other parts of our valley, they are recovering better than we have,” Ross said. Sales tax figures paint a different picture. Basalt’s growth was stronger in 2015 than the other towns of the valley.
* Two council candidates took a shot at a mayoral candidate. Schwoerer said Councilman Rick Steven’s comment during a public hearing made her decide to run for council. Schwoerer claimed Stevens said he didn’t care what the audience thought of his vote at a hearing. Stevens answered later in the forum that his point was he was going to stick to his heartfelt position even if it got he voted out of office. In a different part of the forum, Duroux said a member of the board acted improperly for criticizing town staff in a public forum. He didn’t identify the alleged offender during the forum but later said he was speaking about Mayor Jacque Whitsitt. Whitsitt said during the debate that sometimes comments don’t come out right during a meeting and that she respects the town staff.
*Ross and Stevens said they suspect Mariner Real Estate Management sold the Whole Foods and Starbucks buildings at Willits Town Center for $30.5 million because the Town Council rejected a proposal to share any sales tax revenues over the 2015 baseline. Mariner said it wanted the sales tax funds to spur development of the unbuilt portion of the project. Stevens said he thinks the buldings were sold to raise capital. Mariner officials won’t discuss the sale. However, a representative of the buyer was vetting the approvals and regulations on the property at Town Hall months before the council vote on the sales tax revenue sharing.
* Riffle appeared much more at ease than at a forum March 2, where she apologized for being nervous. She drew a chuckle from the audience when she said the election has brought the town to a boil and it needs to be addressed after the vote. She suggested gathering residents around a campfire and singing Kumbaya.
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