Eagle County commissioners approve Tree Farm project in El Jebel despite threat of litigation
The Eagle County commissioners approved the controversial Tree Farm project in El Jebel by a 2-1 vote Monday night after a five-hour hearing.
Commissioners Jill Ryan and Jeanne McQueeney voted to approve the project. Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry voted against it.
Developer Ace Lane received the second and vital round of approval for his project, which includes 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space. The site is across Highway 82 from Whole Foods.
The proposal faced widespread opposition for the growth impacts it will create, including traffic. But proponents said it would provide affordable and “attainable” housing.
Critics also claimed the project was a moving target. Lane and his team changed the application substantially from the first round approval until this current, second round.
Eagle County received close to 300 written comments on the project, as well as scores of comments in public hearings. The vast majority were against the project, but supporters also rallied to its defense Monday.
“As anybody can see, the community is not of one voice. The pubic vision is unclear, at least to me,” Chandler-Henry said.
She said she couldn’t vote for the project because the changes were too great. For example, the amount of commercial space grew substantially between the first and second round of review of the project, she noted.
McQueeney countered that the changes created a better project. The amount of commercial space is “reasonable,” she said, and the project adds to the attainable housing stock in the valley.
“I do believe it is in conformance to what the community was looking for,” McQueeney said.
Ryan also credited the developer’s team for the changes. “In summary, I think it’s a much better plan,” she said.
Ryan specifically credited the project for massing the density around a major public bus stop.
McQueeney and Ryan claimed the application complied with the land-use standards that Eagle County applies to all projects. The compliance included the 2013 Mid-Valley Area Community Plan.
The approval came at the end of a long hearing. Opponents made a last-ditch effort to convince the commissioners to reject the project — with a threat of litigation.
Tim Whitsitt, an attorney representing a group called Save the Midvalley, said the commissioners couldn’t ignore a long list of legal shortcomings.
“If you do, you’re going to start a long string of litigation,” Whitsitt said.
Several members of Save the Midvalley gave their allotted three minutes to speak to four representatives of the group. Each of them focused criticism on a different aspect of the plan.
One representative, Joe Edwards, said Eagle County had been too lenient with the zoning requirements and didn’t follow its procedural rules for reviewing a land use application. He said the plan had changed too much between the first round of review and the current second round.
“This is a technical, legal argument which could end up being decided by judges, we don’t know,” said Edwards, a land use attorney and former Pitkin County commissioner who helped craft many upper valley growth controls.
Beth Oliver, Eagle County attorney, advised the commissioners they were on solid legal ground.
Michael McVoy, another representative of the group, said the project threatened to swamp a portion of the midvalley that’s already absorbed considerable growth.
“The traffic part is going to affect this valley dramatically,” he said.
McVoy voiced a concern that several speakers expressed over the course of numerous hearings — that the three commissioners, all from the Eagle Valley along Interstate 70, wouldn’t do enough to “protect” the mid-Roaring Fork Valley.
Whitsitt contended that the commissioners must listen to the majority of the community.
“If you listen to your community as opposed to the developer you will find this is not supported,” he said. Whitsitt noted that the commissioners’ advisory planning commission, the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission, recommended denial of the project. The town of Basalt and Pitkin County also urged Eagle County to deny.
But a substantial number of speakers voiced their support. Basalt businessman Paul Cathers said four of his eight employees commute from Rifle. They need the type of housing opportunities supplied by Lane’s project.
Jason Jones said the commissioners had to listen to the “common people” rather than project opponents who are established in the valley with their own homes.
“They’re here and they’re trying to close the door behind them and not let people in,” Jones said.
Lane’s application requires him to rent 40 apartments at below market rents and sell 10 condos with price caps. In addition, 150 units with a “resident occupied” restriction will be offered for sale to full-time workers in the valley, though the units won’t have price caps. If the units don’t sell to qualified, full-time workers within 60 days of listing, they can be sold to any buyer.
Foes of the project said the affordable housing component of the project is a sham. Ken Ransford said the permanent jobs created by the project would outnumber the 50 units with price caps on rents or sale prices.
“I think this is going to magnify our affordable housing problem and make it worse,” he said.
McQueeney defended the proposal and said she was willing to grant various variances to land use criteria that Lane requested.
“I feel this could be a missed opportunity,” she said.
McVoy said the review was very much a “political decision” and he appealed to the commissioners to listen to the majority of the community.
Oliver said public comment and input from entities such as Basalt are “important” but only in relation to the land use standards.
“It’s not a political decision,” she said. “It’s not a popularity contest.”
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