Basalt paying for past sins in review of Willits development | AspenTimes.com
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Basalt paying for past sins in review of Willits development

Basalt has evolved into a bastion of growth control over the past two years, but the town government is still paying the price for past sins.

The Town Council has learned that it cannot pare the 456,000-square-foot Willits proposal without a risky legal challenge, according to Councilwoman Anne Freedman. The problem, she indicated, is that the project received two rounds of approvals before the current board started a third and final stage of review.

“Obviously we were concerned by the previous agreements,” said Freedman, one of the staunchest growth control advocates on the board.

Willits received a critical second-stage approval in 1997. However, the project hit a snag a year later when it came back for the final review. Several board seats have changed hands, and the town adopted a tougher philosophy on growth since that second approval was granted.

The council hired Denver attorney Gerald Dahl in spring 2000 to advise it on what was still negotiable on the Willits project. The developers and their attorney maintained that preannexation agreements granted by the town government in 1993, as well as the two rounds of approvals, locked Basalt into granting the 456,000 square feet of commercial space.

They were apparently right, although the town has never disclosed Dahl’s advice.

Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens ducked the question when asked at a public hearing Thursday night if the square footage of the project was negotiable. He referred the question to Jody Edwards, the town attorney, who wouldn’t answer it on the grounds that it was client-attorney privilege.

When asked whether or not Basalt constituents had a right to know if the size was still debatable, Edwards replied, “I guess not.”

No members of the council disagreed, although Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt said after the meeting, “That answer isn’t acceptable.”

Also after the meeting, Freedman said it was “safe to assume” that the outside legal advice steered the board away from trying to shrink the project. Freedman noted that the board majority’s sentiments were clearly in favor of a smaller project before Dahl’s opinion.

Since size wasn’t debatable, the town staff focused in private negotiations on getting concessions from the developers. Developers Michael Lipkin, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams agreed to donate land for a transit center, a performing arts center and a government facility.

The sides also negotiated construction of 74,000 square feet of affordable housing.

The concessions push the size of the project significantly higher than the 456,000-square-feet of retail, restaurant and office space the developers can build.

“I come up with 598,000 (square feet),” said Edwards. “It’s big.”

The board voted 4-1 Thursday night to direct their staff to prepare final approval documents for the Willits center. Whitsitt cast the dissenting vote, saying it was too big. She voted to approve the project in 1997.


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