Challengers peg growth as top concern in Eagle County race | AspenTimes.com

Challengers peg growth as top concern in Eagle County race

When Tom Stone ran for Eagle County commissioner in 1998, many observers felt he skated into office when his two liberal-leaning challengers split the opposition vote.

Four years later, some observers fear it may happen again.

Incumbent Republican Stone is facing challenges from Democrat Gerry Sandberg as well as unaffiliated candidate Laurie Bower. Democratic party leaders are nervous that Bower may draw enough votes from Sandberg to allow Stone to remain in office.

Even Sandberg concedes that Bower will take votes that he “might need to get over the hurdle” of toppling Stone.

Bower, the former chair of the Eagle County Democratic Party and former candidate for state Senate under the party’s banner, makes no apologies for running in the race as an independent.

She’s heard people say that a vote for Laurie is a vote for Tom Stone. “I think that’s a cheap shot,” she said.

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Bower said the Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves for their perceived predicament. “If they came up with a strong candidate, they wouldn’t be whining about this,” she said.

She relished being labeled the spoiler in the race. “I think I’d be happy to spoil it for both of them,” Bower said.

Stone isn’t voicing any complaints about facing two opponents. It worked to his advantage in 1998, when Basalt Democrat Jacque Whitsitt and unaffiliated candidate June Deane split votes. Their combined votes topped Stone’s total.

Stone is campaigning this year on the theme of “promises kept” during his first term in office.

Sandberg countered with a theme of instilling integrity in the 3rd District.

Bower is telling voters to elect an independent voice for Eagle County.

All three candidates live in the Gypsum or Eagle area. Their district extends into the Roaring Fork Valley.

@ATD Sub heds:Bower: More affordable housing

@ATD body copy: Bower said her leading priorities as commissioner would be managing growth and addressing affordable housing issues.

The current level of growth in Eagle County is too great, she claimed. Today’s county commissioners and past boards have approved significant amounts of new development despite questions about whether the economy and resources such as water can handle them, she said.

Bower also charged that developments often get approved even if they don’t comply with the county master plan.

In the area of affordable housing, the county government must adopt a greater role in both “facilitating” construction of housing and forcing the private sector to provide it, Bower said.

She noted that a 50,000-square-foot commercial project was approved in Edwards by the county commissioners recently without a requirement to house any of the 160 employees generated. Bower supports county legislation that would require 20 percent of residential projects to be employee housing, preferably on site. She also supports requiring commercial developers to provide housing for 20 percent of new employees generated.

While she doesn’t believe Eagle County government should build affordable housing, she wants to encourage cooperation from the private sector through incentives. Greater density could be granted to developers who build affordable housing and fees could be waived, she said.

The current administration pays only lip service to incentives, according to Bower.

“They talk about it but they don’t do it,” she said.

Eagle County is also facing a problem of keeping its stock of affordable housing truly affordable, according to Bower. The former planner in the county’s housing office said that one project that had units that initially sold for $165,000 is now seeing prices at $240,000.

She wants the county to adopt state housing board appreciation caps of 3 percent annually. That allows steady, respectable growth.

“A person can still get benefits but can’t rape and pillage any more,” she said.

Bower said she would follow recommendations of the Roaring Fork Regional Planning Commission and find other ways to honor the opinions of residents on issues of local interest.

She also claimed she has a better grasp on housing issues facing her potential constituents in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Bower is a real estate broker who worked as a planner for the county housing office from June 2001 until this month. She quit, she said, after a new director was hired from outside the office and she was facing what she felt was a demotion.

Bower endorsed an Eagle County ballot initiative to implement a property tax to fund open space purchases and preservation. “This is an investment we can’t afford not to take,” she said.

@ATD Sub heds:Sandberg: Slow growth rate

@ATD body copy: Sandberg said his highest priority in office would be dealing with growth and its many facets ? affordable housing; job opportunities; “wear and tear” on infrastructure; and environmental degradation.

“I’m not anti-growth, and I’m not for uncontrolled growth,” he said.

But he does want to place greater emphasis on assessing where, why and how fast growth is occurring. He noted that Eagle County has “won lots of awards” for creating a master plan, but not any for executing it.

Sandberg said he is concerned that there are “thousands” of residential units that have been approved but not yet built in Eagle County. Thus, he said it is time to reconsider how much more should be approved.

Sandberg is taking a cue from Vail Resorts, which is laying off some executives and tightening its belt in case of another tough ski season.

“If they’re cutting back, I’m not sure we should be building much,” he said.

At the same time, Sandberg believes the county government must do more to promote construction of affordable housing.

“There is not an affordable market in Eagle County. There is nothing under $100,000,” said Sandberg.

He believes the “inclusionary zoning” that the county is considering is a “good step in the right direction.” That requires a developer to provide on-site affordable housing in a project. Sandberg said he would favor being slightly more lenient, perhaps by allowing a developer to reduce the housing requirement by addressing some other social need, like a day care center.

Sandberg was leery of requiring commercial developers to address housing for employees generated by their projects. He said it is a “tough call.” He fears it would raise businesses’ prices.

While campaigning, Sandberg said he has discovered that the Roaring Fork Valley portion of the county faces the same issues as the Eagle Valley ? growth, water quality, open space and recreation.

He warned that unincorporated areas of the county, such as El Jebel and Edwards, can “intentionally or not” be used as a “dumping ground” where county officials try to solve their problems.

Edwards and El Jebel are both among the highest-density neighborhoods in Eagle County. They both provide a substantial amount of what passes for affordable housing.

On growth issues, Sandberg would rely heavily on the local planning commission to get a feel for how people in the Basalt and El Jebel areas stand on issues.

He also said he would advocate adding two county commissioners, boosting the total to five. He believes that is a way to increase representation for areas like Basalt and El Jebel. The Roaring Fork Valley would receive its own representative on the board.

Sandberg has endorsed the property tax for an open space purchase and preservation program.

Sandberg is the lead investigator for the district attorney’s office in Eagle, Summit and Lake counties. His work builds on evidence that law enforcement officials collect in criminal cases and helps with convictions. He formerly held office on the Eagle Valley school board.

@ATD Sub heds:Stone: Help kids and seniors

@ATD body copy: Incumbent Stone said he wants to remain in office to help youth and seniors or, in other words, “taking care of our own.”

He said he’s gotten off to a good start during his four years in office by taking steps such as “jump starting” the conversion of the old Mount Sopris Tree Farm into a recreational facility.

The county spent an estimated $4.5 million to $5 million building a community center and county office building at the tree farm; grading space for one soccer and one baseball field; seeding those fields, rough grading land for other ball fields; and laying the irrigation infrastructure for those fields.

It also provided parking and landscaping for the two completed fields and constructed the community center with outdoor access to bathrooms.

Stone said he firmly supports the effort to create a special recreation district to build, operate and maintain additional facilities at the tree farm. That property and the district would be called the Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District.

Midvalley voters will decide in the Nov. 5 election whether $5.1 million of general obligation bonds can be issued to create a new recreation district. The bonds would be repaid through a property tax increase.

The commissioners, including Stone, approved a plan which includes two softball/baseball fields; two soccer fields; a playground; a picnic area; a skateboard park; volleyball, tennis and basketball courts; and trails.

If the district is rejected by voters, Stone said the two fields that Eagle County has completed will still be available for play in spring 2003. It would have to be determined how maintenance would be funded and who would schedule use, but an arrangement could be worked out with Roaring Fork Valley authorities, he said.

While Stone supports the property tax hike in the Roaring Fork Valley for the recreation district, he personally won’t endorse the property tax hike proposed for an open space program.

“That’s a tough one for me,” said Stone. “I’ve certainly been a big supporter [of open space], but the problem I have with this tax is it’s going to double taxation in Basalt and Vail.”

Basalt voters approved the town’s own property tax for open space last November. Those funds will be used primarily, if not exclusively, within town borders. Vail already has a real estate transfer tax in place for land purchases within town boundaries.

Stone said he would support a county open space district which excludes Basalt and Vail.

Despite his personal opposition to the proposal, he did vote as a commissioner to send the issue to the ballot. He is concerned that it could harm chances of other initiatives he favors, such as the Crown Mountain Park.

“I hope people won’t just say no on everything,” he said.

Another job that Stone wants to finish during a second term is an affordable housing program. He noted that the county, in partnership with a developer, is building 282 residences in the Berry Creek development in Edwards. Prices will range from $90,000 for small condominiums to $240,000 for single-family homes.

The project is being built with a 12 percent profit margin that will be split between the county and developer. County officials are working on deed restrictions that will go with the property.

Stone said his goal is to allow enough appreciation for residents to build equity and move into different housing.

“We don’t want to create people who are dependent on government housing,” he said. “We want them to move up and out.”

The trick, he acknowledged, is to allow appreciation without making the homes unaffordable for second-generation buyers.

Stone said he believes he has demonstrated to his Roaring Fork Valley constituents that he will listen and act on their concerns. He gave examples of how he voted to reduce the density of a development application in Emma, deferring to neighbors’ concerns. He opposed a project in the Seven Castles area due to neighborhood desires.

Since the county office building was completed in El Jebel this year, Stone said he has kept office hours there once every three weeks. He vowed to continue to visit El Jebel to keep in touch with Roaring Fork Valley constituents.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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