Big project in El Jebel nears planning commission vote | AspenTimes.com

Big project in El Jebel nears planning commission vote

The biggest development proposal in the midvalley since Willits Town Center was approved in 2001 is heading toward a possible vote today.

The Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission will begin deliberations on the Tree Farm project at a public hearing that starts at 4 p.m. It's possible the board could make an advisory vote to the Eagle County commissioners before calling it a night.

Developer Ace Lane and his Woody Ventures LLC have applied to build as many as 400 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space. That includes a hotel. As proposed, there would be 45 affordable-housing units tied to the project. Lane would add other affordable-housing units in connection to a separate application.

The Tree Farm application and Eagle County planning department staff report are available for review at http://www.eaglecounty.us/Planning/Active_Land_Use_Applications.

The planning commission has held numerous meetings over the past six months. No more public comments will be accepted, but scores of people weighed in during the hearings. Opposition ran about five-to-one against the project. The following is a summary of the opponents' objections, the benefits touted by the proponents and the town of Basalt's position, as expressed in recent meetings.

What the foes are saying

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A group called Save the Midvalley is hammering the point that the project was altered too much between the times it received first-round approval from Eagle County in 2009 to now. Eagle County has a three-stage approval process with sketch, preliminary and final review. When the sketch plan was approved by a 2-1 vote, it featured 319 residences, including 108 deed-restricted units and 96,375 square feet of commercial space.

Save the Midvalley wrote in a letter to the planning commission members that the project should be denied because it has been changed so drastically between the sketch and preliminary review. The square footage increased 20 percent while the residential units increased 25 percent, the letter said. In addition, Lane is seeking too many variances from the county land-use code, the group claimed.

"There is nothing in this project that benefits the citizens who now live here, like open space, parks or schools," the letter to the planning commission said.

Other points frequently made during the hearings included:

• The project will generate too much additional traffic at a time when congestion is already chocking Highway 82 during the morning and evening rush hours.

• The additional residences and commercial space are too much for the midvalley to absorb. Willits Town Center, which was approved for more than 500,000 square feet of mixed uses by Basalt, is only about halfway built out. Eagle County should wait to see the impacts of Willits before approving additional development on that scale.

• There isn't enough affordable housing in the plan and the apartments proposed are too expensive with rents projected to begin, in today's dollars, at about $1,300 for a one-bedroom unit.

What proponents are saying

Lane was quiet during most of the review process and skipped many of the meetings. His team stuck largely to the nuts and bolts of the county land-use code during hearings. However, that changed at the last meeting on Oct. 22. Lane spoke for the first time about his vision, and his team strayed from sticking to technical comments.

Lane said population growth and energy consumption make it essential to start developing in a different way. His project will rely to a large extent on an off-site solar farm, require efficient construction methods that far exceed code and feature the planting of thousands of trees to make the development "carbon negative."

Other points made by Lane's team or proponents in public meetings included:

• The project is transit oriented because it is located by a major bus stop for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. Most units will be within easy walking distance of the bus stop.

• The project is supplying rental apartments, which are in high demand and short supply. In addition, condominiums and lofts that will be offered for sale will be "attainable" at between $400,000 and $500,000.

• A handful of self-described millennials speaking at the meetings said they have few options for housing in the Roaring Fork Valley. They see the Tree Farm as a viable option.

• David Marrs, chief financial officer of Lane's team, said no single retail space would be larger than 45,000 square feet. That is meant to alleviate fears that the Tree Farm will pursue a big-box retailer that will compete with existing businesses in the midvalley.

What the town of Basalt is saying

The Basalt Town Council has consistently urged Eagle County to deny the application and suggest to Lane that he apply for annexation into the town. The county says it cannot force such an action.

Town Manager Mike Scanlon has given public comment numerous times, most recently on Oct. 22. He said Lane's property is within the town's urban-growth boundary — an area the town feels is appropriate for growth. However, he feels it would be best if the project were annexed so uses can be complimentary to what already exists in West Basalt. The goal, he said, is to avoid having existing sales tax base "cannibalized."

Other points made by Scanlon:

• Eagle County doesn't have the resources to serve a development the size of the Tree Farm, as proposed. The Sheriff's Office says it already is short two officers in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Scanlon, and the Tree Farm will make that shortage more acute. Basalt police officers will be called to cover emergencies more often under mutual-aid agreements. Town taxpayers will foot the bill.

• Town officials don't believe Lane's pledge to limit an individual retail space to 45,000 square feet goes far enough. They want him to pledge not to open a grocery store. The existing Whole Foods Market in Willits is 35,000 square feet, according to Scanlon. It is conceivable the national chain could be lured to Lane's site because it has better highway access in addition to more space. Town officials don't believe the midvalley gains if sales are shifted from one jurisdiction to another.

The Tree Farm hearing will be held at the Eagle County office building adjacent to Crown Mountain Park.

scondon@aspentimes.com