Basalt incumbents risk re-election on housing
Five incumbents seeking re-election on the Basalt Town Council decided Tuesday night to live or die by an affordable-housing initiative.
The incumbents absorbed an angry volley of criticism from perhaps 25 real estate agents, developers and business operators before approving the guts of Basalt’s first affordable-housing program.
The risky action was taken just one week before three of them will seek re-election to trustee seats and two members will vie for the mayor’s seat.
The board passed legislation last year that requires developers to provide housing to offset creation of new jobs. Tuesday’s legislation established the details, such as income caps on residents of deed-restricted units, sale prices of units and residency restrictions.
Basalt real estate agent Becky Anslyn warned the board to avoid creating a program patterned after Aspen’s.
“The whole thing is full of animosity and problems,” she said. “We should be learning from that.”
She proposed broader steps, such as down-payment assistance.
Real estate agent Diane Ash said the proposed program seemed “heavy on the developer.” They are required to build housing for up to 20 percent of employees generated by new commercial development. There’s a sliding scale that will be applied to developers of new residential development.
“My concern is we’ll put such a heavy burden on them that they’ll walk away,” said Ash.
She and others in the room accused the board of approving a program with no demonstrated need and too little planning.
Her husband, P.D. Ash, a real estate agent who is running for trustee in the April 4 election, accused the board of ignoring the public’s will.
“You guys are representing the public, but your ears aren’t open,” charged P.D. Ash. “Is this all we can come up with? Because this isn’t a very well-thought-out equation in my opinion.”
He warned that housing guidelines and other regulations would just add expenses to projects and force the developers to “chintz” in areas to preserve profits. The result will be lower-quality development for Basalt.
Ash floated one of the more unique ideas expressed during the campaign when he said he will no longer use the label “developers” but will refer to them as “retail providers” instead.
Further criticism was leveled at the board by a businessman who claimed he had been considering relocating a business to Basalt, but was being spooked by regulations like the affordable-housing guidelines. He said that would just drive up commercial rents.
“People aren’t going to come here, myself included,” the businessman said.
But Town Council members vigorously defended the housing program as a way to preserve the community.
The free market is doing a great job on its own of rapidly escalating commercial rents and home prices, said Mayor Rick Stevens. People, like Stevens himself, used to be able to sell affordable-housing units in Aspen and buy a free-market house in places like Basalt. That opportunity is rapidly disappearing, Stevens said.
“We need to give people an opportunity to live in this valley,” he said.
He noted that the board has been working on a program for “four or five years” and held at least 20 public hearings. Therefore, he suggested, Ash’s claim that the board wasn’t listening wasn’t valid.
“We’ve been working on it too long to let it sit any longer,” said Stevens. He said the program can be amended if and when critics come in with viable alternatives. “All I’ve heard is don’t do it. That’s not enough.”
Stevens is seeking re-election as mayor and facing a challenge from Steve Solomon, a current councilman who also expressed support for the housing guidelines. Solomon angered the crowd by saying his interpretation was they didn’t want any type of affordable-housing program.
Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt told the audience the board believes “there is a tremendous need for affordable housing. We do have to and are going to start somewhere.”
Councilwoman Anne Freedman said there was “no single shred of evidence” that home prices or commercial rents would stop going up if the board tore up the housing guideline proposal.
Councilman Leroy Duroux said there was no guarantee the town was pursuing the perfect solution, but it had to start making the effort.
“My idea is we have to start somewhere for our youth to return,” he said.
All five of those incumbents and candidates supported the housing guidelines, as did council members Tracy Bennett and Chris Lane, who aren’t up for election this year.
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Just in time for Halloween, the Pitkin County Board of Health voted 4-2 to reduce the size of informal gatherings from 10 to five for at least the next two weeks starting Friday. According to the public health director, officials are currently investigating 11 outbreaks in Pitkin County.