Basalt mulls whether church or land use most sacrosanct
By Scott Condon Aspen Times Staff Writer
The Basalt Town Council is messing with a group that has friends in really high places in its latest land-use debate.
The majority of the council was lukewarm this week about a proposal to relocate St. Vincent Catholic Church and build affordable housing near Basalt High School.
The church and housing weren’t the problem. It was the location.
While the two sides were amicable and, in fact, stressed that they didn’t want to fight, the town’s principles and the church’s economics might make agreement difficult.
On the one hand, the church and an independent affordable housing nonprofit related to the Denver Catholic Archdiocese contend they will get their best bang for the buck by buying 24 acres away from the town’s core.
On the other hand are some Basalt officials who insist the town cannot support development outside its “urban growth boundary,” or the area where it wants to expand.
Church needs space
Basalt’s Catholic parish is outgrowing its church and facilities on the east end of Midland Avenue and looking for alternative sites to purchase, said Darryl Grosjean, a parish member and real estate agent who is helping in the search. But because its funds are limited, it must find land outside the Basalt core, where costs are lower, he explained.
The parish is teaming on a potential land purchase with the Archdiocesan Housing Committee Inc., a nonprofit entity that is independent of the Catholic Church but works closely with the Denver Archdiocese to provide affordable housing in Colorado and Wyoming.
The two entities are considering purchasing from Richard Downey 24 acres of land by the high school. The church and housing entity would like the site annexed into the town and have utilities extended.
The housing committee – which has built 1,004 units in 17 Colorado towns – wants to build up to 60 housing units on the site. It received a $2 million gift from the late Fritz and Fabi Benedict in the 1990s for the construction of affordable units somewhere in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Housing committee representative Anna Strobl said the Downey property would be ideal because it is currently isolated. Therefore, she said, there wouldn’t be much neighborhood opposition to the plan.
“There’s always been adverse publicity when we come into a community,” she said. “If someone hears affordable housing, there are real negative comments.”
Potential opposition unfortunately plays as big a role as finances when is comes to selecting sites for housing, according to Strobl.
“We go where we’re asked,” she said. “We don’t have the energy to fight battles where we’re not wanted.”
The entity managed to build the Machebeuf apartments in Glenwood Springs and the Villas de Santa Lucia in Carbondale despite intense opposition.
A Basalt housing project would target low-income people who live or work in the community.
Sprawl is sprawl
Basalt officials stressed that the housing is welcome, but several members said they hoped the church and housing officials would seek an alternative site.
“Personally I’m thrilled you’re back,” said Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt, who recalled a prior conversation about a housing project. “Where I’m not flexible is on the Urban Growth Boundary issue.”
Whitsitt explained how the town spent significant time preparing a master plan that defined how the town wanted to grow and where. If Basalt and other towns don’t stick to those growth plans, “this state doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to get growth under control,” she said.
Town Manager Tom Baker also cautioned in a memo against approving growth outside the boundary, even for community institutions.
“Once these institutions are allowed to develop outside of the urban area, then private developers have a much easier time successfully arguing that they should be allowed to develop outside the Urban Growth Boundary as well,” Baker wrote.
But Mayor Rick Stevens offered a different opinion. He said affordable housing is so critical – particularly from an organization that would build and maintain it – that he would be flexible on the Downey site.
“I would support whatever it takes to build it there,” Stevens said.
Whitsitt countered by asking, “Why did we go to the trouble of creating a map of where this stuff should be if we’re just going to blow it off?”
Stevens noted that the Downey parcel was immediately adjacent to the town’s designated boundary, not several miles away.
Before the issue came to a head, Baker suggested that he could work with church and housing officials to look at other sites within Basalt.
Whitsitt noted that affordable housing and relocation of the church would apparently be unanimously supported within town boundaries while the same proposal for the Downey site would split the board.
Church choices limited
Grosjean cautioned the board that property within the town simply wasn’t affordable for nonprofits and institutions, so they had little choice but to check the fringes.
He and Doug Pratte, a land-use planner assisting the church, said the housing entity might be able to afford land in Basalt, but the church couldn’t. Pratte stressed that the town needed to be flexible on annexation of property like the Downey parcel; otherwise public facilities like the Catholic church would be driven from Basalt and into unincorporated Eagle County.
“The Methodist church is going through the same thing,” Pratte said. “You could lose two churches in this town.”
Stevens agreed that maintaining a rigid boundary was less important than retaining community institutions.
Councilman Dave Reed agreed that the town should do everything it could to encourage the church and housing proposal.
“I would much rather see the church and housing on the Downey property than nowhere,” Reed said.
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