County nixes plan to build teachers affordable homes
In an emotionally-charged meeting Wednesday, Pitkin County denied a proposal to build affordable housing for teachers.
The proposal was brought to the county commissioners by the Aspen School District and Mary Jane Garth, owner of Aspen Valley Ranch in Woody Creek. The development would have included 10 two-bedroom affordable units in three buildings, along with three large free-market houses, each on a 20-acre lot. The site is adjacent to another school district housing project completed in 1999.
The board voted four to one against the project, with Commissioner Dorothea Farris, a retired teacher, dissenting.
County staff recommended the denial because the proposal did not conform with several master plans created to guide development. The commissioners agreed, but were also uneasy that the remainder of the property, without any kind of master plan, could be easy pickings for further development.
The proposed site is outside the urban growth boundary specified in the Aspen Area Community Plan. But attorney Herb Klein, representing the applicants, argued that the county’s land-use code only requires the government to “consider” such master plans when reviewing applications.
“I don’t believe you can turn this down because it doesn’t conform with master plans,” Klein said.
The project was proposed under a provision of the code that allows free-market houses to be considered favorably if the developer proposes accompanying affordable units in the ratio of 70 percent affordable and 30 percent free-market. According to code, such 70/30 projects may be built outside the urban growth boundary, Klein argued.
But county planner Tamara Pregl reminded the commissioners that this project required rezoning of the land, and the county’s code requires compliance with master plans in cases where rezoning is requested.
Jon Seigle, speaking for the school district, noted that the project, with its public-private partnership aspect, wouldn’t cost the district or the taxpayers money.
Commission Chairman Mick Ireland argued that the three free-market houses Mary Jane Garth would be allowed to build could be expected to create nearly as many employees as the affordable development would house.
“This isn’t a free lunch,” Ireland complained. “We have a bunch of costs foisted on the community because the school district doesn’t want to pay money.”
Attorney Nick McGrath and planning consultant Alan Richman, representing the Woody Creek Caucus, joined Woody Creek Planning Commissioner Michael Owsley in speaking out against the plan.
School Superintendent Tom Farrell argued that without housing for teachers, it would be increasingly difficult to hire good teachers.
“If I can’t hire the best teachers around,” Farrell said, “I’m going to go somewhere else. I’m not going to be the superintendent of a mediocre system.”
While Commissioner Farris was supportive, saying that teachers must be a part of the community they serve, the other commissioners reluctantly came down against the project.
Commissioner Shellie Roy argued that affordable housing shouldn’t discriminate for or against any profession or job. Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who made the motion to deny, observed that, according to the Down Valley Comprehensive Plan, the site is zoned for agriculture and wildlife, and there’s no adequate reason to rezone it.
Commissioner Patti Clapper was moved by the school district’s argument that the housing is essential for keeping good teachers in the community, but couldn’t be swayed.
“You guys are making me feel really bad about making a good land-use decision,” said Clapper, breaking into tears.
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