Basalt council deadlocked on Pan and Fork direction
The Basalt Town Council declined Tuesday night to ratify an agreement that would have explored development on the Pan and Fork property with a specific developer.
Basalt’s proposal to work with Lowe Enterprises drew extensive criticism at a public hearing. The council was deadlocked 3-3 on signing a “pre-development agreement” with the company, a development firm with strong Aspen ties. Councilman Rick Stevens couldn’t attend the meeting for personal reasons. He was the swing vote and stated in a letter to the council that he supported the agreement.
The type of proposed agreement, which Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon has used extensively on land-use issues and major projects during his two years at the helm, was non-binding. However, it caught the attention of critics who felt it gave the impression that the town would work with Lowe to make a proposal work. More than 50 people attended the meeting. Councilman Bernie Grauer estimated that 85 to 90 percent were opposed to the town entering the pre-development agreement. He said that helped sway his vote.
Audience member Margot Pendleton said the council should avoid working with one specific developer because of the perception it creates.
“Everybody perceives — whether it’s true or not — that we’re in bed with somebody,” said Pendleton, a Basalt resident and former Aspen councilwoman.
Grauer, Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Councilman Gary Tennenbaum voted against entering the agreement. Councilmen Herschel Ross, Mark Kittle and Rob Leavitt supported it.
Numerous speakers from the audience urged the council to refocus work on preserving more of the Pan and Fork site as open space and limiting development. Royal Laybourn, a longtime Basalt businessman, drew an ovation from the crowd when he urged the council to preserve property that is an “amazing gem.” The property, just west of downtown on the banks of the Roaring Fork River, will only become more valuable as a community meeting space as the midvalley grows, he said.
“The pressure of development in the midvalley over the next 10 years is going to change the character of the community,” Laybourn said.
Developers will win approval for their projects with promises of affordable housing or some other public amenity, he said. It will result in a “strip mall” from East Two Rivers Road to Dakota subdivision, through the Basalt and El Jebel area.
“Every time, our quality of life slips down another notch and we become more like the Front Range,” Laybourn said. That’s why it is important to preserve the Pan and Fork site, he said. “That is special. It can’t be replicated.”
Basalt resident Mark Kwiecienski said the town was headed down a path that assumed 75,000 square feet of development at the Pan and Fork site plus additional growth at the adjacent Merino and Lions parks. He claimed that different legislation to zone the property for development without thorough public input was “snuck through” the process.
“This will essentially straightjacket the town,” he said.
He urged the council to reject the pre-development agreement and consider the Pan and Fork site’s future without pressure.
Basalt resident Jim Newsome said preserving the site with as much open space as possible makes it far more valuable than uses such as a hotel.
“I think that property is priceless as open space,” he said.
Whitsitt, Grauer and Tennenbaum said they want to explore some level of development on the Pan and Fork, but not via the pre-development agreement. The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission recommended a master plan for the property that calls for 75,000 square feet of development. Although the commission didn’t recommend specific uses, a hotel was pegged as a possible use. Proponents of developing the site contend a hotel is vital to downtown’s vitality.
Basalt resident and business owner Stacey Craft said Basalt is a tourist town without tourists. “We need vibrancy in the town,” she said. “We can’t pay our bills on Midland Avenue without vibrancy.”
Craft contended that the debate was being dominated too much by people who know too little about economics and land use concepts.
Basalt resident Greg Shugars countered that Aspen Skiing Co. looked at the economics of a hotel at the Pan and Fork and determined it wouldn’t work. Another developer with an option to buy the site also couldn’t produce a workable plan. Lowe Enterprises officials have gone on the record saying a stand-alone hotel wouldn’t work at the site. It needs condominium development to support the investment in a hotel. But Shugars and several other speakers said a survey showed Basalt residents overwhelmingly don’t want condos on the site. It’s time for Basalt to look beyond Lowe Enterprise’s plan, Shugars said.
“We keep getting in bed with Lowe but we can’t get another girlfriend,” he said.
The site, which was a mobile home park for about 50 years, can now be a centerpiece for Basalt, according to Shugars. What limited development occurs should be for the benefit of the entire community, like an events center, he said. He even offered the name the Basalt Social Justice Meeting Hall.
For whatever reason, the Basalt residents who support working with Lowe Enterprises on a hotel and other development didn’t show up en masse. Craft was among a handful of people who spoke in favor of development.
But at least three council members noted the community is divided over the issue. Grauer said both sides in the debate claim they have the majority of the community behind them.
“It’s not at all clear to me what the majority (wants),” he said.
Audience member and former Basalt councilman Glenn Rappaport said he believe it will take a public vote to decide the issue. Grauer agreed.
“Why should this council go through the brain damage of a complete process?” he asked. He later added, “Bottom line, we should bring it back to the community.”
Tennenbaum said there is a great deal of passion on both sides and that the debate was good for Basalt. He said he doesn’t want to rush that debate, so he couldn’t approve the pre-development agreement.
Tennenbaum said he also sees open space and parks as a key component to stoking community vitality. He said he understands there are different visions.
“It’s going to be a public vote on where we’re going on this,” he said.
Whitsitt said she thought a pre-development agreement was “premature” and suggested a certain development scenario.
“It’s heading us down the road,” Whitsitt said. “It is sending the public a message.”
Ross vigorously defended the pre-development agreement with Lowe Enterprises. He said he believed a lot of people were confused about what the agreement meant. It simply provided a path for greater exploration of development, he said. It didn’t provide any guarantees of development.
“There’s no railroaded, hidden agenda,” Ross said.
He claimed buying the site would be folly, because it would be too expensive and wouldn’t win community support in an election.
Leavitt also stressed that the agreement wouldn’t guarantee anything. “It keeps the process moving forward,” he said.
Leavitt noted that less than two years ago there were 29 mobile home parks on the site, in the flood plain. The town relocated the residents and now is in position to help with town vitality through a park and development, he said.
The council left it unclear how they will continue to explore development of the Pan and Fork without the pre-development agreement. The board voted two weeks ago to endorse the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission’s direction on a master plan for the property. That master plan contemplated about 75,000 square feet of development on the site. The council also approved an economic study by its consultant on different sizes of development scenarios.
Basalt residents will have to determine the direction, Kittle said, because the direction is unclear to him.
“It seems like we’ve slipped back into the mud a little bit,” he said.
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