Basalt mayor wants town to buy remainder of Pan and Fork site
The Aspen Times
Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt has urged the Town Council to hold a public discussion on the possibility of the town buying the entire former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site so it can more easily dictate what gets built and when.
At a council meeting Friday, Whitsitt said she isn’t against some level of development on the site, which is along the Roaring Fork River close to downtown. However, she believes current planning is being driven by the need for a developer to make a profit.
“That’s not my job,” Whitsitt said.
In a civil but spirited debate that followed, it became clear that the council is fractured over how to proceed with development on the Pan and Fork site. The debate has been front and center in Basalt for 18 months.
The town already owns the half of the property closest to the Roaring Fork River and is working on a riverside park. The nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. owns the half of the site closest to Two Rivers Road. The nonprofit organization has a contract to sell its 2.3 acres of vacant land to a development firm.
The Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission recently completed a master plan for the former Pan and Fork site as well as other lands in the vicinity. The plan calls for allowing about 75,000 square feet of development at the Pan and Fork, including the possibility of a boutique hotel.
The planning commission will present its master plan to the council Tuesday evening. Town Manager Mike Scanlon provided the council with a preview Friday, kicking off the debate about how best to proceed.
“How much should be there? That’s the main thing I hear,” Whitsitt said. “The people of this community want slow development, no development.”
If the town buys the property, the council could decide what it wants on the site, then put it out for bid to developers, Whitsitt said.
She added that she feels a restaurant and an events center would be ideal there. Having a venue where events can be held is the key to spurring economic vitality downtown, Whitsitt argued. Events, recreation and open space have created a thriving economy in Aspen, she noted.
“That’s driving money right into the core of Aspen,” Whitsitt said.
Other council members questioned why buying the property would give the town an advantage. The town already has the ability to approve or deny development proposals, Councilman Rob Leavitt noted.
Buying the property owned by the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. would likely require a bond issue, which would require voter approval.
Councilman Herschel Ross said he doesn’t believe voters would approve a bond issue, given the current economic and political atmosphere.
“It would lose astoundingly,” he said.
As a downtown business owner, Ross said he regularly hears from merchants that the town needs to make progress on the Pan and Fork redevelopment so that the downtown’s economy can be improved.
He said people regularly ask him, “How long do I have to hang on by my fingernails?” he said.
Leavitt said he has no problem justifying the council moving slow and deliberate on the issue. It’s a big decision, he said, and the town government doesn’t want to mess it up.
Leavitt said he wants to look carefully at how much development is appropriate for the site. He also wants the town to thoroughly weigh if a hotel is the best use to spur vitality.
Councilman Bernie Grauer said he disagreed with Ross that an election question would be handily defeated. If the town effectively describes its vision and explains its strategy, voter support could be earned, he said.
Grauer said the majority of people who commented on the planning commission’s master plan said the proposed 75,000 square feet of development in two buildings on the Pan and Fork site was too dense. The proposed development needs to be rearranged and broken up, he said.
The master plan contemplates a 47-room hotel with a restaurant and bar. There also would be 30 residential “flats” at 1,200 square feet each. The commission’s blueprint envisioned a 94-space underground parking garage. Some town officials have said the town government would have to assist in the parking garage.
Councilman Rick Stevens said there is a lot of misinformation floating around about what can be developed at the site. He said he welcomes the town’s recent decision to hire its financial consultant to perform a report that shows how much development is needed for the project to be economically feasible. That will help the council reach a conclusion, he said.
The economic-feasibility study will be out in about two months, according to Scanlon.
Grauer said he was “not opposed” to a town referendum on what to develop on the Pan and Fork site. He said he would rather see the council refer a question to the ballot than have residents petition to get a question before the electorate.
Whitsitt warned that Basalt’s council should learn lessons from Aspen.
“I don’t want to see us to be like Aspen where the electorate doesn’t trust us and takes every (land-use matter) to the ballot,” she said.
The debate is likely to resume Tuesday when the planning commission presents its downtown master plan to the council. The commission looked at the potential for development in Merino Park, where the recycling center was formerly located, and a portion of Lions Park, where Town Hall is located, in addition to the Pan and Fork.