Commissioners should honor past W/J decisions
On the face of it, the latest application to develop the W/J Ranch is a good one, but the county commissioners should turn it down nevertheless.
Lowe W/J Inc., the latest owner of the 234-acre ranch on the edge of McLain Flats, wants to build 12 free-market homes with 12 accompanying caretaker units around the edge of large open meadows.
Approval would require the board to overlook restrictions enacted by two prior boards, but Lowe W/J has come up with a few goodies to entice them.
One goody comes in the form of 161 acres of open space. Lowe W/J representative Jim DeFrancia said in a Feb. 4 hearing that his company is willing to donate 67 acres to the county for trail development and river access and another 67 acres to a local land trust. An additional 26 acres would be maintained as open space by homeowners themselves.
Another goody comes in the form of 28 new affordable-housing units next to existing affordable housing at the W/J.
Unlike many developers who are only interested in affordable housing if it can be sold as “resident occupied” with minimal price restrictions, Lowe W/J is willing to commit all 28 units to the category housing program. That means the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority could sell the units at truly affordable rates to locals in a variety of income categories.
Lowe W/J is also offering to build a new wastewater-treatment plant, and improve roads and utilities to the existing housing as former ranch owners Wink Jaffee and John Musick were supposed to do. The company has even gone so far as to cover unpaid bills and settle or drop the lawsuits left over from the days when Musick owned the ranch.
With all that going for Lowe W/J’s application, it may seem difficult for the commissioners to turn it down.
But the commissioners can and should base their denial on two key decisions about the property made in the last 12 years.
The first came in 1989, when the county allowed Wink Jaffee to build 27 rental units and legalize 33 more he had built without permission. In exchange for the approvals, the county commissioners attached a condition stating there would be no “no additional development potential” on the ranch’s upper meadows.
The second came in 1994, when Jaffee and his new partner, Musick, requested an exemption from the county’s difficult subdivision requirements. They wanted to sell the rental units to the tenants or other local buyers who qualified under the county’s affordable-housing regulations.
The commissioners granted the exemption and allowed Musick and Jaffee to sell their rental units for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, but they did so on the condition that there would be no further development on the ranch.
It seems clear: No additional development potential means no additional development potential.
By denying today’s application, the commissioners would protect more open space than they would by approving it. And while Lowe W/J’s offer to build affordable housing is laudable, we do not feel it is appropriate to place more housing so far from mass transit and so far from Aspen, where most of the residents would probably work.
Even if the application is denied – as we strongly recommend – Lowe W/J could develop five free-market homes and 12 resident-occupied affordable-housing units on a portion of the ranch not encumbered by the 1989 and 1994 approvals.
The 2003 Board of County Commissioners should deny this project and honor the agreements that two previous boards made in good faith on behalf of Pitkin County’s residents.
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