County is facing familiar frustrations at Stillwater
When the county commissioners put off their final decision on the proposed Stillwater affordable housing development this week, they were facing some tough, but familiar challenges.
And their frustration with those challenges, the same ones they deal with on every affordable housing project, were clear by the end of Wednesday’s two-hour hearing.
Shellie Roy Harper found herself arguing vehemently in favor of a project that in past meetings she’s expressed serious reservations about. Mick Ireland did everything he could to keep himself getting into the same argument as Harper, who was sparring with the daughter and son-in-law of one of Aspen’s most revered families.
Leslie Lamont’s voice was cracking as she moved to continue the hearing to July 25 so the commissioners could look at “some big picture issues about the future of the lot.” Dorothea Farris agreed only reluctantly to the delay, telling her fellow commissioners that “it was time to make a decision.”
Neighbors of the proposal to build 17 units of affordable housing on four acres of county-owned land on Aspen’s east end have expressed their distaste for the project, both in person and through the comments of a local lawyer. They’ve argued the project is out of scale with the neighborhood, and the housing program and its clients would be better served if this land were sold and the money used to build housing elsewhere.
Those neighbors – Stewart and Linda Resnick on one side, Vernon Friesenhahn on another, and heirs to developer Fritz Benedict on another – are sounding many of the same warnings as another group of homeowners on the other side of town.
Some of the most recognizable names in the valley – including Connie and Mark Harvey, Jamie Knowlton, Nick DeWolf and Aspen City Councilman Terry Paulson – have organized to fight the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority’s plan to build a 225-unit affordable housing project at Burlingame, a city-owned parcel between the golf course and the airport business center. At a press conference Wednesday, they argued that Burlingame is out of scale with the area and would promote urban sprawl.
“It’s a bad plan and it’s dumb planning,” Mark Harvey said.
The housing authority’s proposal for Stillwater is much more modest, and until Wednesday it was facing little serious opposition. It calls for 13 three-bedroom units and four one-bedroom units scattered in seven buildings. The total floor area is just over 22,000 square feet. The building heights are limited to 20 feet by a deed restriction on the property. The proposal also includes an open space easement on just under three-quarters of an acre along the banks of the Roaring Fork River.
The county commissioners gave the plan their unanimous approval on first reading last month, directing the housing authority to change the parking plan, increase the ceiling heights, and look into eliminating the sprinklers.
But project opponents got a boost on Wednesday when the Jessica Benedict-Gordon and John Gordon, daughter and son-in-law of Fritz and Fabi Benedict, urged the county to sell the land on the free market and use the money to build housing elsewhere. As the owners/developers of the Stillwater subdivision, Benedict-Gordon and her husband own property that abuts the county parcel.
Fritz and Fabi Benedict, who are responsible for much of the development in the upper valley, including Red Mountain, donated the four-acre parcel to the county in 1994 on the condition it be used for affordable housing. The written agreement says that proceeds from the sale of the property should be used for affordable housing, and “in lieu of” selling the land, the county must use it for affordable housing.
John Gordon cited the 1994 gift agreement as evidence that his parents-in-law never intended for the Stillwater parcel to contain such a large development. He said that for Fabi Benedict the “in lieu of” in the agreement meant “in the event something can’t be established,” rather than “instead,” the more common definition.
“Fabi would have liked you to sell this land and spend the money elsewhere,” he said.
But Commissioner Harper didn’t buy his line of reasoning. “You’re referring to one line in the agreement. The next six lines set conditions for building affordable housing on the lot. What am I supposed to think?”
Harper spent the next five minutes laying out her frustration with the never-ending opposition to affordable housing in the upper valley.
“Everywhere we go to build affordable housing, we’re told it’s not an appropriate place. It’s the same as at Snyder, Pitkin Iron, Burlingame, Aspen Mass – wherever we go is inappropriate. I don’t know where it is appropriate affordable housing, except maybe the desert in Nevada,” she said.
When Gordon said he’d be satisfied with a smaller project that was clustered around a building envelope near the center of the property, Harper said she’d like to do that too, but it wasn’t economically feasible.
“The gift is money,” said Gordon.
“Money doesn’t do me squat,” Harper fired back. “Where is the right place?”
After a pause, Gordon said, “Not here.”
When Lamont asked Gordon why he was so opposed to such a well-designed project, he replied, “I think the money you’re facing [to be spent on lawsuits] is endless.”
“Then we better quit right now,” snapped Ireland.
Even after Lamont explained that the proceeds from sale of the Stillwater lot wouldn’t go far toward new housing, given the cost of land and construction, Gordon maintained his opposition to the plan.
At the end of the meeting, Ireland pointed out that people always say a project is better suited somewhere else, but then they never show up to testify in favor of projects that are somewhere else.
“There’s no one who opposes Burlingame here tonight to support affordable housing at Stillwater. And I haven’t seen anyone who is against Stillwater coming out to support Burlingame,” he said.
Ireland noted the entire Stillwater project is only a few thousand square feet less than the 17,800-square-foot home where Stewart and Linda Resnick reside. And, he added, the project is much better hidden from view than Mountain Valley, which covers the hillside to the north.
The Gordons said they have no plans to sue the county, even if it goes ahead with the project as currently planned. They left the meeting before the commissioners had a chance to respond to his comments.
Stewart Resnick, who was accompanied to the meeting with an attorney, wouldn’t say whether he planned to sue. He stayed until the hearing ended.
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