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Building boom not likely to bust

Allyn Harvey

From the squawking coming out of recent public meetings with the Pitkin County commissioners, one might get the impression the construction industry and the valleywide economy face imminent collapse if a recently adopted development moratorium isn’t lifted immediately.

Some of the biggest players in the construction boom say it will force hard-working carpenters and plumbers and drywallers out of work because there won’t be enough work to go around. Others predict it will fuel a boom in the lower valley that consumes every last square inch of developable open space in the valley.

One construction worker even told the county commissioners Monday that he expected to be unemployed in “two-and-a-half weeks.” And if the moratorium stays in effect – halting new applications for subdivisions, planned unit developments and homes larger than 3,500 square feet – he reckons he’ll remain unemployed.

But not all who go to work every day at one of the 2,000-plus construction jobs in the county agree. “If you can’t find work right now, you’re not really looking,” said a contractor from Carbondale who asked not to be named.

For some in the industry, the likely impacts of the moratorium are harder to gauge than their colleagues have made it seem. They note that the commissioners are only talking about halting the application process for six months. And even though they are all philosophically opposed to the moratorium, most aren’t so sure it will affect them at all.

“I’m a one-man shop, so I’m not worried. At first, I was glad for the slowdown, because it would let me catch up,” said Glenwood Springs plumber John Swartzendruber.

Swartzendruber said installations in large homes in the upper valley have comprised a fair amount of his business, but that’s beginning change as he finds more work in the lower valley to keep him busy.

“I don’t see why anybody is should be crying, except the big guys it is really affecting,” said the contractor from Carbondale.

The “big guys,” like anti-moratorium leaders Steve Hansen and Jack Wilkie, on the other hand, may see two, three or four major projects slip away during the moratorium, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. Like the big guys, the Carbondale contractor works exclusively on high-end homes, but with jobs lined up through mid-summer, he doesn’t see much cause for concern.

Others aren’t quite so confident. “Mostly what I think it’s done is interject a lot of uncertainty into the future. What I’ve done is lower my expectations for what seven months out is going to look like,” said framer Curtis Goodnight.

Goodnight has been working in the valley for two years. He runs a 10-man shop that frames some of the most expensive homes in the valley. Goodnight says he and his employees are too busy working to get worked up about the moratorium.

He didn’t know a “builders coalition” had been formed by Hansen and Wilkie to fight the moratorium. And he’s not so sure the stoppage will have noticeable long-term effects, because it doesn’t stop work in Aspen, Snowmass Village or Basalt. “Those are some pretty good chunks of the valley. I think the Aspen and Snowmass markets are fairly strong right now,” he said.

In fact, Snowmass Village is in the midst of a base-area boom fueled partly by the recent end of a 15-month development moratorium there. Basalt, which recently lifted its own moratorium, is being hit with several major development applications, including Sopris Meadows and Riverwalk.

In Carbondale, the River Valley Ranch development is in full swing, and several high-end homes next door at Hendricks Ranch have yet to be built. Farther down the valley, Aspen Glen has numerous undeveloped sites, and the Garfield County Planning and Zoning Commission recently recommended approval of more than 500 residential units and 300,000 square feet of commercial space at Sanders Ranch.

Last year, Garfield County issued 416 building and remodeling permits, down just slightly from 1998. Even Rifle is affected by the boom. According to city records, 89 single-family homes and 48 condos and apartments were built there last year. And the Rifle City Council is considering annexation of 75 acres on Grand Mesa as part of a proposal to build up to 200 additional single-family and multifamily homes.

Even in Pitkin County, 230 projects that have vested development rights are exempt from the moratorium, and the county also recently exempted projects that have received conceptual approval and are just beginning to work their way through the process.

For most interviewed for this story, the moratorium only poses a danger if it is extended much beyond its six-month term. With work in outlying areas plentiful, and increasingly lucrative, workers have less motivation to work in Aspen.

“One scenario would be that I don’t have overlapping projects and I start losing guys – it’s a downward spiral. It could get so I can’t guarantee coverage on my current client’s job,” Goodnight said.

On the other side of the coin, the Carbondale contractor points out that a slowdown for some of his competitors would make it easier to find the skilled labor he needs so badly.

And then there are contractors like G.E. Johnson, the general contractor on the Highlands Village project, who see no problem whatsoever with the moratorium. “This is a big, commercial, three-year project. It has no affect on us,” said company spokesman Buddy Davis.


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