Basalt craftsmen enclave: Is it too good to be true?
December 6, 2005
Steve Crowley’s dream of providing affordable work space in the Roaring Fork Valley for craftsmen before they all flee to Rifle or Silt isn’t having trouble finding supporters. It’s believers that are hard to come by.Crowley pitched his plan to Basalt officials Tuesday night and was applauded for his good intentions. But members of the planning commission and Town Council said it will take more than good intentions to pull it off.Crowley came to Aspen in 1964 as a craftsman himself. The cabinetmaker said he has seen changes sweep the valley. Skyrocketing real estate prices valleywide have driven out craftsmen, light industry and people in construction trades. Many have moved to western Garfield County, he said.He wants to make a dent in that problem by turning five acres he owns in the midvalley into an enclave for craftsmen, artists and light industry. He wants to develop 92,000 square feet of commercial and residential space – the bulk of it in 1,000-square-foot workshops that he would sell. The property is located along Willits Lane, beside the Basalt Design Center.”We want to create spaces that could be acquired by these businesses because we think it adds stability to the community,” said David Myler, Crowley’s attorney.The project, called Willits Bend, wouldn’t have ritzy second homes or high-end retail stores that could be sold to subsidize the affordable commercial space, Myler said. Crowley intends to sell the entire project at affordable rates targeting craftsmen like himself. “This is not a Robin Hood project,” Myler said.Heavy trust componentBut Crowley’s proposal relies on trust. He pledged to restrict sale prices on 10 percent of the commercial property or institute a real estate transfer assessment designed to penalize speculation and quick resales. However, the proposal lacks guarantees that the property would land in the hands of craftsmen, artists and operators of light industry, or that the bulk of the project would remain affordable.”We need some degree of flexibility so we don’t end up with an empty project,” Myler said.”I agree with the intent of your project from the get-go,” Basalt Planning Commissioner Gary Wheeler told Crowley. But the bulk of the project will sell for “the high dollars that Basalt is commanding,” he said. “I think it’s not going to be affordable.”Basalt Councilwoman Anne Freedman said she’s learned during more than six years on the council that she cannot rely solely on the promises and good intentions of a developer. Conditions need to be written in black and white because projects often change hands before they are completed, she said.Planning commission Chairman Bill Maron said it would be in the town’s interest to work with Crowley to help keep the project affordable. In return, the town needs some ironclad conditions from Crowley that ensure the project will remain as intended in case another developer takes it over.”If it ends up in the hands of Snidely Whiplash, we’re going to end up with Butler buildings with flat roofs,” Maron warned, referring to a brand of bland metal buildings common on farms.Crowley said he would be willing to make some changes to address Basalt’s concerns. For example, he said, he is willing to limit the amount of space one buyer can acquire and guarantee some design components.No more turf warBasalt doesn’t have the ability to reject or approve the project. The land is just outside the town limit, in unincorporated Eagle County. The Eagle County commissioners will decide its fate.But Basalt has influence on the outcome because Eagle County solicited an official town government position called a referral comment. A month ago, it appeared the town would oppose the project unless Crowley agreed to allow the land to be annexed into the town.Tuesday night, Basalt officials took a more conciliatory approach. Town Manager Bill Efting said it didn’t really matter if the project was in the town or the county, as long as conditions of the development were acceptable.Myler said Crowley wants Basalt’s blessing for the project when he seeks Eagle County approval. The project is realistically part of Basalt, because of its location, even if it isn’t in the town limits, Myler said. He said there was potential for the project to be annexed so Basalt could reap sales tax revenues.The Willits Bend project will go before Eagle County boards in January for official review. Town staffers and Crowley’s team will try to work out an agreement on the project before those meetings to enhance the chances of approval by the county.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com