Basalt council votes 4-2 to approve Aspen Skiing Co. affordable housing at Willits

This image shows where Aspen Skiing Co. is proposing an affordable housing project in Willits Town Center. Whole Foods is in the upper center of the photo. Highway 82 is on the upper end. Willits Lane is off the photo on the bottom end.
Courtesy image

The Basalt Town Council voted 4-2 Tuesday night to approve Aspen Skiing Co.’s controversial proposal to build an affordable housing project in Willits.

The 43-unit, 150-bedroom proposal faced considerable neighborhood opposition for alleged inadequate parking and for creating a “dorm” that would be out of character with the area.

The most biting criticism was that the project is an example of a big upper valley employer looking in the midvalley to solve its problems.

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum wasted no time during council deliberations to address that issue. He said the project is a model for addressing the regional housing crisis. It is a private company using its own funds to build transit-oriented affordable housing that is within walking distance of grocery stores, bars, restaurants and public bus stops.

“We shouldn’t talk about Aspen’s problems, Basalt’s problems,” Tennenbaum said. “It’s a regional problem.”

Skico officials knew they had a fight on their hands. The company altered its proposal twice based on criticism from neighbors and feedback from the council in two previous hearings. It also submitted a letter to the town government this week that addressed point by point a letter from a Willits homeowners’ association that opposed the project.

The council was deadlocked 2-2 on the proposal in a hearing last week where two members eligible to vote couldn’t attend.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan attended Tuesday’s hearing to lobby for the project.

Every community in the Roaring Fork Valley is facing an affordable housing crunch and the crisis will just get worse without action, he said.

“It’s a great opportunity to make a difference,” Kaplan said of the company’s project.

Contending that the housing represents Aspen bringing its problems to the midvalley is a “small way” of looking at the issue, he said.

Basalt residents have worked for Skico since the company was started, he said. The company now has 500 employees who live in Basalt and more than 90 work in Basalt, according to Kaplan and Jim Laing, Skico senior vice president of human resources.

Kaplan told the council members they would get “heat” regardless of how they voted. He urged them to support the affordable housing.

“It’s innovative. It’s different. Therefore, it’s controversial,” Kaplan said.

Skico is proposing a 53,000-square-foot building. With the latest revision, Skico is proposing five one-bedroom units, two two-bedroom apartments, five with three bedrooms and 31 units with four bedrooms. It eliminated six-bedroom units that some people said were out of character with Willits.

“The team has maybe done too good of a job making concessions,” Kaplan said. “The cost has gone up by a third.”

Speakers from the audience were roughly evenly divided between opponents and supporters during public comment. Many supporters were from the child care field. Among the 46 units, Skico is providing eight apartments that will be rented to people outside the company. Child care providers will have priority to those eight units.

Parking was most frequently cited as a shortcoming by foes. Skico committed to build 46 off-street spaces. It asked the town to allow it to exclusively use 45 spaces on public streets for residents of its complex.

Several speakers said the company should be required to provide all the parking necessary for the project. Skico officials insisted that by providing bus passes and regulating parking, its project won’t be a burden on Willits as a whole.

Willits resident Carol Hawk said that if Skico could spend millions to acquire land on the back of Aspen Mountain, it could afford to build an underground parking garage.

Kaplan said cars and parking garages are “Stone Age thinking and Stone Age planning.”

The council majority agreed. Tennenbaum and council members Bill Infante, Katie Schwoerer and Jennifer Riffle supported the project in the first of two required votes. They all credited Skico for stepping forward with a transit-oriented affordable housing project and helping the child care field.

Infante cautioned that Skico shouldn’t be taken for granted. He noted that Boeing left Seattle. “Skico could move, too,” he said.

Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Councilman Ryan Slack opposed the project. Both said they wanted to see a larger, more diverse project that supplied housing for more members of the community.

“Make this thing bigger, make it more diverse,” Whitsitt said. “That would make it community housing. This is Ski Company housing.”

Councilman Auden Schendler recused himself because he is a Skico executive.

A second reading will be held in July.

(Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect that 43 affordable housing units were approved.)