Basalt’s political hot potato heads to council Tuesday
The Aspen Times
Basalt’s hottest political potato in at least 15 years will be mashed Tuesday night.
The Town Council is scheduled to take action on a citizens’ initiative designed to force the town to buy part of the Pan and Fork property and preserve most of it as a park.
The citizens’ group submitted petitions with more than 400 signatures of registered town voters who want an election on the Pan and Fork. The council can accept the petitions and schedule the election, reject the petitions or refer its own question to the ballot.
Town Attorney Tom Smith has already advised the council that the petitions are legally defective. The committee disagrees.
Rather than duke it out in court, the citizens’ committee proposed a compromise Friday.
“What we have here are interesting legal issues that we don’t have the time to resolve prior to the April 5 election,” said a letter by committee organizer Cathy Click. “At the same time, we have 400 or so electors who want the questions posed by the ordinances submitted for a vote.”
Rather than accept or reject the petitions, the committee wants the council to craft its own wording on ballot questions to resolve the Pan and Fork issue.
The issue is a political hot potato because four of the seven council members are up for re-election in April. The Pan and Fork is obviously a hot topic among prospective voters. The 2012 election, which featured a hotly contested race for mayor, attracted 759 voters.
“I think we’re seeing a level of engagement that’s been unprecedented for a long time,” said Jon Fox-Rubin, executive director of The Manaus Fund and a key member of the citizens’ committee.
Nevertheless, the petition has its critics. Councilman Herschel Ross said prior to a recent council meeting that the relationship between the citizens’ committee and the property owner, Roaring Fork Community Development Corp., needs exploration. He noted that attorney David Myler represents both the citizens’ committee and the property owner.
Myler said he has represented Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. off and on over the past five years. The citizens’ committee hired him this winter because of his expertise in municipal law and familiarity with the Pan and Fork property.
“Did I perceive there was a conflict? No,” Myler said. Neither did Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. Myler said he got a green light to work with the committee. The interests of the parties are aligned, Myler said, as they both want the town to purchase the property.
Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. is affiliated with the Manaus Fund, which promotes social justice and education and integration among immigrants. Philanthropist George Stranahan is the key supporter of both organizations.
Fox-Rubin said he disclosed the connection between Manaus and Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. when he was invited to join the committee. He also got clearance from the Manaus board of directors to participate in the committee’s activities.
Fox-Rubin said his motivation is helping the community resolve an issue. He has a history of civic involvement, including stints on the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission and a four-year term as a councilman.
As a community member, he sees the citizens’ initiative as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to determine how a special piece of property gets used.
As the executive director of The Manaus Fund, he is concerned about the money tied up in the Pan and Fork property.
Manaus loaned Community Development Corp. $700,000 to help with the Pan and Fork purchase in August 2011, according to Fox-Rubin. Stranahan and other philanthropists have loaned Community Development Corp. more than $2 million for the purchase and subsequent administrative actions. They want their money back, Fox-Rubin said.
Manaus wants its funds to plow back into Roaring Fork Valley projects. Community Development Corp. isn’t making payments to creditors, and interest is accruing on its loan.
The citizens’ committee is proposing that the town buy the 2.3 acres owned by Community Development Corp. for $3 million. Fox-Rubin said that sales price was selected because that’s what Community Development Corp. needs to pay off its creditors. It’s also the amount of a purchase option held by development firm Lowe Enterprises.
Cathy Click, founder of the citizens’ committee, said the core membership felt the property was worth $3 million, so that’s the amount that was included on the petitions.
“I don’t think they’re out to soak the town,” she said. “They aren’t out for a quick buck.”
An appraisal commissioned by the town places the value of Community Development Corp.’s 2.3 acres at $1.92 million as-is and $2.52 million with development approvals. The Eagle County Assessor’s Office considered the actual value $2.1 million, though a reappraisal is due this year.
Fox-Rubin said the appraised value is deceptive because the property remains zoned as a mobile-home park. The value could soar with different zoning.
Click and Fox-Rubin said in separate interviews that their interest in having the town buy the Pan and Fork is to resolve an important community issue that the town government hasn’t been able to act on rather than help Community Development Corp. pay off creditors.
“My first priority is not to get them paid back,” Click said. “My first priority is to the town.”