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Basalt must avoid fishing expeditions

The Aspen Times Editorial

Basalt must avoid fishing expeditions

The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to politics and real estate development in Basalt.

Years ago the Basalt Town Council earned a reputation for being too cozy with developers. Public proceedings often left the impression that deals had been cut between the elected officials and developers even before projects came up for review.

Most of the faces have changed on Basalt’s elected and appointed boards since those days. Nevertheless, some of the old boards’ bad habits seemed to have spilled over to the Town Council and planning commission.

It’s not a question of integrity, but one of judgment. In a case that evolved this week, we think it was a question of very poor judgment.

Valley resident Frieda Wallison came to a joint meeting of the Town Council and planning commission seeking an indication of how the board felt about her proposed changes to a previously approved downtown development project called River Walk.

Wallison hasn’t submitted an application to the town yet, but she politely explained to the assembled officials that she had a contract to purchase the property and is scheduled to close at the end of this month. She asked for a written memorandum of understanding with the town stating that said her proposal for increased density for the project was acceptable.

A significant increase in the size of the project is vital for the economies of the project, she said. And courting investors would only be possible with improved economies.

Basalt officials properly explained – at considerable length – that they could not take any action that prejudges their review. But, inexplicably, Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens then asked for a show of hands from council and planning commission members on how many “reacted positively” to the new proposal compared to the old, approved project. He took a second poll on how many officials felt the project was in line with directions the new town master plan is heading.

Officials were unanimously in favor of both questions, much to the delight of Wallison.

It was a very bad mistake.

The project may very well turn out to be much better than the original River Walk proposal, but that’s not the point. The points are integrity of the public process, legal risks and fairness to all developers.

First of all, the boards shouldn’t have made any informal indication of how they viewed the new proposal after a 40-minute thumbnail sketch. There are a lot of weighty issues to be hashed out – including size of buildings, affordable housing requirements and parking – that the board didn’t even begin to ponder. Can the public rest assured that officials will look at their concerns impartially if they have already indicated a “positive” reaction to the project?

Second is the problem of the impression left with Wallison. It is reasonable to expect she will use the boards’ informal polls as a tool to entice investors. Then imagine what happens if the project gets bogged down in the review process when the weighty issues roll around. It’s not a stretch to imagine investors pressuring Wallison, maybe even with a lawsuit.

It’s just as easy to see her coming back to the board, in person or in court, and saying “you told me you looked at my project positively.”

Finally, there is the issue of fairness to other developers. The developers of the Willits project, for example, have been seeking final approval for a portion of their massive development since June 1998. They have complained more than once that the Town Council is providing them with a moving target without a clear indication of what they want.

How will those developers and others view the positive feedback that Wallison received before she even filed an application?


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