Basalt council split over working with developer vs. purchase of Pan and Fork
Three members of the Basalt Town Council are eager to see a developer’s proposal for the Pan and Fork property while three are convinced that buying the land is the best way to move ahead on a community conundrum.
A deciding vote appeared to be in the hands of Councilman Gary Tennenbaum on Tuesday when council members met in a retreat with new Town Manager Ryan Mahoney. The multi-hour session was held to give a general feel of where the board stands on major issues and philosophies. On the controversial Pan and Fork property, the board remains divided.
Lowe Enterprises has an option on 2.35 acres located closest to Two Rivers Road. Some of the board members said they believe Lowe will submit a development application in the near future.
The issue remains how much development to allow on the property, which abuts the Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center, and how much to add to a park being developed along the banks of the Roaring Fork River.
A ballot proposal in November to buy the property for as much as $3.1 million failed by 900 votes to 977.
Any plan submitted by Lowe would require four votes for approval. Based on the comments at the retreat, it would be tough to gather those votes.
Following is a summary of each of the seven council members’ comments at the retreat.
Councilman Auden Schendler said he wants to see the town resolve the issue so the town government can focus on other pressing needs.
He said he sees three options. “One is nothing, which we’re doing a good job of right now,” he said.
Option two is buying the property, which he feared would gobble available funds and hamstring the government from undertaking other projects.
Option three, he said, is working with the developer to determine an acceptable amount of development and uses. It would test the community’s ability to compromise, he said.
“I don’t see the path forward on these other two scenarios — do nothing and buy,” he said.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the council cannot accept the type of development that could be built “any goddamn place in the country” just to resolve the issue. The Pan and Fork is a special spot along the river and needs to be treated that way, she said.
Whitsitt said she’s never believed the whole property should be a park, but any development must be compatible with a park. She noted that Lowe’s initial concept required a large public expenditure on parking. She believes it would be less expensive to buy the property and then figure out the uses rather than base the review on a developer’s needs. The decision needs to be driven by a vision that benefits Basalt overall, she said.
Councilman Mark Kittle expressed the greatest flexibility. He said he isn’t as keen on putting a small fishermen’s lodge on the site as he once was.
“I think the whole valley wants it to be a substantial park — and so do I,” he said. There’s also support for a nonprofit zone at the site adjacent to Rocky Mountain Institute and the new Roaring Fork Conservancy River Center. Both nonprofits received substantial town assistance.
On the other hand, a hotel at Pan and Fork would help draw people downtown with marketing, Kittle said.
Councilman Gary Tennenbaum built off the nonprofit theme. He said the town government’s purchase of the Levinson property years ago without a specific plan proved vital to the town’s future. The property eventually provided homes for RMI and the river conservancy.
He indicated he has questions about buying the property that need to be answered.
“How does that impact the rest of what the town wants to accomplish?” he asked.
On the other hand, he questioned if the seven-member council can agree on the appropriate level of development and uses on the site. If not, nothing will get done while the property is in the hands of a developer.
“I look at it as we’re doing nothing now,” Tennenbaum said. “We’re waiting for a developer to come in.”
He went on record that he wants less density on the Pan and Fork now that Eagle County has approved sprawl in the El Jebel area. The county commissioners in late June approved the Tree Farm project with 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space.
Tennenbaum said he would urge a developer to “go nuts” with density at the Basalt Center Circle property, anchored by the Habitat for Humanity Restore, but he wants to see lower density on the Pan and Fork site.
Councilman Bernie Grauer said he agrees with Schendler that the time has come for compromise.
“I would like to see a small residential hotel with a restaurant” along with some retail and other commercial, he said. His preference would be adding 1 acre closest to the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue to the park and allowing development on the remainder.
Acting on a plan by Lowe Enterprises is the best route to settle the issue, Grauer said.
“If we go the buy route, we’re kicking the can down the road,” he said.
Councilwoman Jennifer Riffle said any level of development must be low density. Lowe was initially contemplating 70,000 square feet of development, she noted. The RMI building is about 15,000 square feet. She used some colorful adjectives, including “grotesque,” to sum up her thoughts about allowing five times the size of the RMI building on the remainder of the privately owned parcel.
Riffle said she would like to see a staff analysis on a blueprint for acquiring the property and the financial implications to the town.
Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said the town must figure out how to buy the property, then figure out the right mix of park and development.
“At this point, we need to find a way to control our destiny,” she said.
Mahoney, who took his post June 26, was optimistic about the diverse direction.
“I don’t see you guys that far out of alignment, frankly,” he said. “I didn’t hear one person say, ‘No development.’”
Mahoney said the staff would in the near future complete an analysis of how the town could buy the property and how that would affect its ability to act on other fronts.
Lowe Enterprise’s president Jim DeFrancia couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment on the status of a land-use application.
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In the fields and vineyards from Palisade to Paonia to McElmo Canyon, grapes are still ripening on the vines and farmers are now picking with high hopes that the wines of 2020 will rise above the tenor of the times.