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Base on the ballot

Steve Benson

Imagine Base Village as a huge vessel from outer space expected to land in Snowmass Village.

As with any cliched alien invasion plot, the natives are growing restless with equal amounts of excitement and concern. But what’s different about this story is that the locals may have the power to prevent the landing. An initiative ordinance, which could change the town’s land use code and put a stranglehold on the Base Village development, is headed to a public vote March 16.

A joint proposal by resort developer Intrawest and the Aspen Skiing Co., Base Village would add 641,371 square feet of net residential space (net residential does not include nonlivable space such as hallways, garages and public spaces) to Snowmass Village, including 349 condos, 264 hotel units and 10 townhomes. It would also include 63,927 feet of commercial space. Most of the project is slated for the base of Fanny Hill.

While the project has been reduced in recent months ” the preliminary plan proposed 706,271 square feet of net residential and 94,074 square feet of commercial ” many in the community still feel the project will overwhelm Snowmass Village.

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The initiative

In December, a group of local residents and former town officials created Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG). Shortly thereafter, the group launched the initiative to shrink the project and counter what they claimed was an unresponsive Town Council.

If the initiative passes, the Town Council will need voter approval before approving any future developments that exceed certain limitations outlined in the town code. Critics have claimed the initiative could have a chilling effect on future projects, far beyond Base Village.

For Jeff Tippett, the chairman of CRG, the initiative sends a message to all developers about the size and scale of development in Snowmass Village. Base Village itself, he says, is “out of character with the community” and will overload the road infrastructure in the tight valley.

He also fears the development will hurt existing businesses and damage the village atmosphere, driving away both residents and visitors.

“We will look like all the other megaresorts and lose what has attracted people here for years,” he said.

Many advocates of Base Village have criticized Tippett and CRG for launching the initiative at this stage of the game rather than waiting for the Town Council to make a final decision, when a referendum could be launched. But Tippett feels the timing is appropriate.

“An initiative does not kill Base Village; it gives the developer an opportunity to respond to clear public input, an incentive to downsize the project and avoids a future vote,” Tippett said.

If a referendum were passed, Base Village would be killed and the developer would have to start from scratch, he added, but if an initiative passed it would allow the council to approve a base village with 40,000 square feet of commercial space and 414 residential units without any future votes. There are currently 623 proposed residential units.

Advocates of Base Village, including Mayor T. Michael Manchester and the Skico, have argued from the beginning that Snowmass is not complete and that a base village has been a part of the town’s master plan since 1979.

“If you look back, there’s always been a plan to do something here,” Doug Mackenzie, Snowmass mountain manager, said last week.

But fundamentally, that’s not really the issue.

While citizens are divided on the size issue, they generally agree that the town needs a new base village. And that’s where things get sticky.

How much smaller?

Following a series of meetings between local residents and town officials last fall, the Town Council claimed they’d heard the voice of the community. That voice said, “Make it smaller.”

In the first official review meeting between the Town Council and Intrawest last fall, the council told Intrawest to go back to the drawing board and figure out how small Base Village could be and still succeed. Over the next few months, the project slowly got smaller, and it appeared the community meetings had been a success.

Tippett didn’t buy it. After all, the revised plan was remarkably similar to an early conceptual plan, especially on the commercial side (see table).

“The town had their consultant do new ‘research’ to support the new (old) size,” Tippett said. “Everyone acted as if it was a response to public pressure at the community forums.”

Last week, after Intrawest officially unveiled its revisions, council members expressed unanimous approval and a desire to move forward.

“I think Base Village in mass, scale and density terms is there,” Manchester said. “And we should stop talking about making changes.”

With that said, it’s possible the project is on its way to approval, barring any sudden surprises from Intrawest or discoveries in pending studies ” such as an infrastructure and traffic analysis. All that stands in its way is the election, which has angered some council members.

“I think the initiative is an attack on representative democracy,” Manchester said. “I don’t believe it was ever intended as a personal attack, but I take it personally as an elected representative of the community.”

Mike Kanner, an instructor of political science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said initiatives have their place.

“I would say it’s effective if you can’t get a response in any other way,” Kanner said. “One of the advantages of the initiative process is that it allows you to bypass government and go to the people. On a philosophic level, I’m very pro-initiative because it’s another form of democracy.”

But political philosophy aside, Manchester feels the initiative is inherently wrong because it goes against the town’s comprehensive plan and unofficial aspiration, which is “to be the leading multiseason, family-oriented mountain resort community.”

“If you don’t want to be a destination resort than you don’t have to invest in yourself or make improvements, but that is not what the comp plan says,” Manchester said.

Any further size reductions, Manchester added, will put the project at risk of failing ” a conclusion he’s based on a series of town studies and discussions.

“As far as our research and analysis, I would doubt seriously if there is any city or town in the country [that] has provided more analysis or hard work,” said Mike Segrest, town manager.

But is the work accurate enough to ensure the project’s success?

“Yes, I feel confident in that,” Segrest said.

But Tippett feels there is no way to predict the future, and given the town’s size, a smaller village with 414 units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space is safer and more sensible.

“Who can prove that a project of this size would not work for the town?” he asked.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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