Basalt stumbles with first step into affordable housing
Basalt’s first affordable housing project was supposed to be under construction by now. Instead it’s buried under piles of government red tape.
Developer Bob Ritchie said his project is going nowhere fast because he’s caught in a classic Catch-22. He cannot get a building permit from the town of Basalt because he hasn’t secured sewer service from the Basalt Sanitation District.
But he cannot get sewer taps because no purchasers are under contract to buy his units. “And we can’t get anyone under contract because the town hasn’t drafted its affordable housing rules and regulations yet,” Ritchie said.
“It’s a nice, interlocking, stuck mess,” said the Aspen-based real estate broker and developer. First step or stumble? What was supposed to be the town’s first big step into affordable housing has turned into more of a stumble. Ritchie and the Town Council negotiated an agreement last year for the developer to build eight affordable units as part of his Ute Center project.
The Town Council took a tough stance on the employee housing and demanded that the building be constructed at the same time as the remaining free-market structures in Ritchie’s project.
Ute Center is a residential and commercial project at the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue – the crossroads of town.
Ritchie agreed to build four one-bedroom and four two-bedroom units that will be sold to qualified employees. Normally, a developer could start on a building without having buyers arranged, but these aren’t normal times in Basalt.
The sanitation district is only granting sewer taps on a “hardship” basis – primarily to property owners who have prior approvals but unbuilt units.
The district is trying to get its proposal for a plant expansion approved by the state government. The current plant is operating at about 95 percent of its capacity, so the district board is reluctant to grant taps for new development until the expansion is approved. Taps go to free-market units Ritchie said he couldn’t get taps for his affordable housing project because he can’t line buyers up for the units yet. Since buyers aren’t affected, the sanitation district board didn’t consider the case a “hardship.”
Ritchie was able to secure 12 sewer taps for a free-market condominium building he’s constructing on the banks of the Roaring Fork River. He said those sewer taps were available because buyers were lined up for most of the units.
But the sanitation district board apparently looked at the situation a little differently than Ritchie. District administrator Michelle Tulleners said the board granted Ritchie 12 taps, but didn’t dictate whether they be used for the free-market or affordable housing units.
That was Ritchie’s choice to make, she said.
The sanitation district board did decide it wouldn’t grant Ute Center enough taps for its free-market and employee housing projects, according to Tulleners. That would have meant granting too many of the limited taps to one project, she explained. Commercial building delayed The affordable housing building, which Ritchie acknowledged won’t earn him a profit, isn’t the only part of Ute Center affected by the shortage of sewer taps.
Ritchie said he also wanted to break ground on the cornerstone of his development – a commercial building that could become the hub of Basalt’s downtown.
That building will include 9,000 square feet on the ground floor for retail and restaurants, 8,500 square feet of office space upstairs and underground parking.
Since sewer taps weren’t available, he couldn’t proceed with that building, either. Ritchie said agreements with buyers dictated that he use the few sewer taps that he could secure on the free-market condo building.
Town of Basalt officials remain unconvinced that other sewer taps can’t be given out by the sanitation district. The Town Council sent Mayor Rick Stevens to the sanitation district board’s latest meeting to request sewer taps for the affordable housing, but to no avail.
Tulleners said the few remaining taps will only be given out for hardship cases. The district’s application to expand its plant remains under review by the state government.
Meanwhile, the Basalt Town Council is studying whether it should take over operation of the sanitation district. A consultant’s study on consolidation is due this summer.
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