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Changing Times in Basalt

Some Basalt residents swear the town has never been the same since Valentine’s Day 1993.

That’s when a rough-and-tumble biker bar and locals’ hangout called the Midland became a decidedly higher-class restaurant and watering hole called Bistro Basalt.

Fair or not, the Midland’s demise and the Bistro’s rise has become a symbol of Basalt’s transformation over the last dozen or so years.

The once sleepy little town with crumbling buildings on its main street now boasts art galleries, upscale clothing shops and even a gourmet food store.

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The town where hippies and Aspen workers used to take refuge from high rents saw its average single-family-home sales price skyrocket to nearly $600,000 last year.

The former blue-collar town now watches as an occasional Hummer picks up a kid at school.

Basalt has attracted a lot of newcomers in the last dozen years for a reason ” it’s a great place to live. If there was a beauty pageant for small-town America, Basalt would be in the running for the crown.

What direction the town pursues, and whether it retains its unique character, may hinge on an upcoming election that will bring several new faces to the Town Council. This key vote comes as the town government is updating its master plan for future development along the Roaring Fork River in Basalt.

Libby Sullivan lived in Emma from 1986 to 1992, then moved to California for a decade. When she decided to move back to the Roaring Fork Valley, she was attracted to Basalt.

“I looked at my friends, so many of them had moved down here because it’s so real,” Sullivan said. “When I came back I saw the development but it happened in a way that was aesthetically pleasing. Basalt has grown gracefully.”

Savoring small-town flavor

Basalt has attracted people like Sullivan who want to be close enough to the arts and cultural mecca of Aspen but far enough away that they can afford a house and live at a slower pace. She was pleasantly surprised after returning in August 2002 to find that she could get a facial or take a yoga class in Basalt, as well as take advantage of the bustling restaurant scene.

Older establishments like the Bistro, Primavera and Taqueria el Nopal, along with newer hot spots like Hestia, Zheng’s and Rick’s Steakhouse pack in the locals and even draw crowds from Aspen.

Riverwalk and Ute Center have added boutiques that give Basalt more of the critical mass needed to attract shoppers. Many people are drooling in anticipation of a new bookstore in a building being refurbished in the center of town.

Despite the changes, Basalt continues to be a nice place to live because it’s remained small, said Gerry Terwilliger, a resident since 1980. He likes the compactness of the downtown core and its proximity to the Hill District, the area above town where many of the oldest homes are located. Together, the Hill District and downtown core are referred to as Old Town.

“Everything I want to get to in Old Town I can get to on foot,” said Terwilliger.

That small-town feel is important to many Basaltines. A survey by the town government in 1998 showed that preserving the small-town character was the top issue for 34.5 percent of residents, far greater than the next popular response, which was controlling traffic.

The Basalt Town Council plans to update that community profile this year.

The old survey also showed that, like Sullivan, Basaltines are willing to accept growth ” as long as it happens slowly. When asked about growth attitudes, 43 percent of respondents said they wanted the town to grow slowly. Another 26 percent said they wanted growth to occur “moderately,” while 11 percent wanted the town to “remain the same.”

On the two extremes, 5 percent wanted “unrestricted growth” while 5 percent wanted the town to “decline” in size.

Pivotal timing for town

The challenge for Basalt, like any other place that becomes popular, is to avoid losing the charm and character that make it appealing. The town government will play a big role in the next two years on creating the rules that help define how Basalt evolves ” and big changes are coming to the town board.

The mayor’s position and three seats on the Town Council will be contested in the April 6 election.

Although Mayor Rick Stevens must leave office because of term limits, his successor will be a familiar face. The two candidates running for mayor are Leroy Duroux and Anne Freedman, both current members of the council.

Duroux must give up his council seat because of term limits; he is not prohibited from seeking the mayor’s seat. Freedman is in the middle of a four-year term. If she is elected mayor, the council must appoint her replacement on the council; if she loses the mayor’s race, she retains her council seat.

Three new faces are guaranteed on the council. Like Duroux, Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt must leave office due to term limits. Incumbent Jon Fox-Rubin didn’t seek re-election. Five candidates are vying for the three seats. They are Laurie Dows, Bernie Grauer, Mark Kittle, Jim Paussa and Glenn Rappaport. (A sixth candidate, Nick Alcorta, died of a heart attack last week at the age of 39.)

After the new council is seated on April 13, one of its first big tasks will be reviewing the River Master Plan ” a blueprint for land-use development on property affected by the Roaring Fork River in Basalt.

There are essentially two pieces to the river plan: One that calculates what changes are needed in the stream bed to reduce the risk of flooding; the other identifies where and at what density development is appropriate near the river or in the flood plain.

The master plan will determine how the town achieves its high-priority goal of removing trailer houses from the Roaring Fork and Pan and Fork mobile home parks. Those two neighborhoods, home to about 75 families, are in the floodway ” the path of the most raging water in a big flood. Town officials say they want to relocate the residents for safety reasons.

Former Town Manager Tom Baker and his staff wanted to have the River Master Plan ready for review before the changing of the guard on the council. Baker felt the current board, which had long been involved in the issue, should finalize the plan.

But that deadline was blown out of the water. The review isn’t expected to begin until late spring or early summer.

Lurking in the background

The case of the Roaring Fork Mobile Home Park illustrates the importance of the River Master Plan on Basalt’s growth.

A group of investors headed by Illinois businessman David Fiore purchased the 52-unit mobile home park in June. In December, they presented a draft of their development plan, although they haven’t submitted a formal application.

Their plan proposed relocating the trailers away from the river and leaving open the 4.5 acres closest to the stream for a park. In return for removing the trailers, Fiore’s group will seek approval for between 310,000 and 350,000 square feet of commercial buildings that would be pulled back from the river. The first floors would feature retail shops and restaurants. The upper floors, sometimes up to a fourth story, would have offices and residences.

In addition, Fiore’s group is eying a proposal for 57 affordable housing units, 60 multifamily units and 24 higher-end homes on 25 acres near the Basalt High School.

Fiore’s plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developments influenced by the River Master Plan. A preliminary study prepared for the town by consultant Design Workshop examines potential development on 17 properties affected by the river plan. The “carrying capacity” ” or high-end development estimates ” show that 443,000 square feet of commercial space and hotels and 993 residences could be built there.

The planning commission and Town Council must review those numbers before enacting the master plan.

Outlook of mayor hopefuls

Freedman is making growth concerns the central theme of her campaign for mayor.

“I don’t think people realize what’s on the horizon,” she said.

Freedman said she wouldn’t support a “huge amount” of commercial development on Fiore’s redeveloped mobile home park because she wants to concentrate it in the core. Approving commercial development outside the core risks harming businesses already located there.

“The more massing you have in a downtown area, the better it is for all of them,” she said.

Freedman also opposes any development outside Basalt’s urban growth boundary, an area defined by earlier plans as the limits to which the town would grow.

If adhered to, the boundary would bar development from spilling into vacant lands near Basalt High School, Emma, up the Fryingpan River and south of the Willits project.

If a developer proposed a project outside the urban growth boundary and sought annexation into the town, Freedman believes the proposal should go to a vote of the people. “It shouldn’t just be seven people that decide that,” she said, referring to the council.

Freedman believes development on the fringes of town will become a critical issue in Basalt’s future because the remaining property within the town is disappearing. Eventually, there will be development pressure in the areas that are now open space. Therefore, she thinks this election could be critical.

“It only takes a couple of votes to really change the look of things,” she said.

Freedman’s foe, Duroux, also believes this is a pivotal time for Basalt, but for a different reason. When discussing growth, he talks about it as an opportunity rather than something to be constricted.

“We need to grow our economy and create places where families can go into business,” he said.

For example, Duroux would love to see Basalt attract a fishing-equipment manufacturer, which would dovetail with the town’s heavy dependence on fishing-related tourism.

Duroux said he supports the community’s efforts to define how much it wants to grow through its various master plans and the definition of the urban growth boundary. Once those limits are set, he supports nurturing growth and aggressively pursuing it within that area.

“Supply and demand are going to determine what the appropriate number is,” he said. “If it provides the town with benefits, I can’t see denying growth.”

‘Turning the Titanic’

Terwilliger, who has been active in politics and civic endeavors for most of his 24 years in Basalt, casts doubt on how much this election will really influence the town’s direction on growth.

“Even if you get the most growth-oriented [candidates] elected, it’s like moving the Titanic,” Terwilliger said. “It’s going to be a stalemate, no matter who gets elected.”

He believes the current Town Council is the most restrictive he’s ever seen in Basalt. It’s a frequent criticism in the building industry that development proposals have a tendency to disappear and get studied to death during staff review in Basalt.

Developers are waiting to see if that changes, now that a new town manager, Bill Efting, has assumed the reins at Town Hall.

If it doesn’t change, one developer predicted, the only companies that will be able to afford the time and money needed to pursue a project in Basalt will be outside development firms ” those more concerned with turning big profits than fitting in.

Diversity lost?

Regardless of the outcome of the election and the growth debate, Terwilliger predicted the gentrification of the town will continue. He lamented the loss of diversity that’s already occurred.

Everybody talks about providing housing to try to keep the cops, teachers and firefighters around town. But preserving Basalt’s small-town flavor depends just as heavily on keeping a diverse mix of people on the socioeconomic scale.

“Somebody’s got to talk about keeping the carpenters, plumbers and day laborers here,” he said. “None of them are moving into town.”

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


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