Couple proposes unique housing plan to county
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Beth and Bob Mehall have made Pitkin County an offer it might not be able to refuse.
The Mehalls met with the county commissioners yesterday to discuss a proposal, unlike any made before, for building affordable employee housing in the upper valley.
It involves no direct public subsidies. The entire project would be financed by the future homeowners. But it does involve an indirect subsidy of sorts, because the county will have to allow an exception to its land-use policies in order to make it work.
“We’re not asking for financial support. We are looking for your guidance and thoughts about our plan,” Beth Mehall said.
Here’s their plan: Six to 10 families pool their money to buy a parcel of land and finance construction of a home for each family. The county would exempt the families from some land-use regulations.
Bob Mehall said they had the idea after seeing an undeveloped 35-acre parcel near Aspen on the market for $2.5 million. “We can’t afford that ourselves, but we thought we could if there were seven or eight other buyers involved,” he said.
Beth Mehall, who grew up in Aspen, told the commissioners that they would be willing to cluster the houses, keep them at a reasonable size and follow green building guidelines if that would serve as an enticement for county cooperation.
She sees it as an opportunity to bridge the gap for people who don’t meet the financial guidelines to qualify for affordable housing but also don’t make enough money to live near Aspen.
“Like I said, I grew up in Aspen. I spend a lot of my time here, and I still feel like it is my home,” she said.
But for the plan to work, the county would need to amend its land-use rules to allow the kind of development the Mehalls are proposing. It would have to overlook the density of the neighborhood, exempt the families from the expensive subdivision process and perhaps allow urban or suburban style development outside the so-called urban growth boundaries.
Currently, the commissioners are working on new regulations that would make the Mehall plan impossible to carry out, but yesterday’s meeting may force them to rethink their positions.
“I think we need to start acting like we really do mean it when we say we want the people who live here to work here,” Commissioner Dorothea Farris said.
Farris and several other commissioners agreed they would seriously consider any lot that the Mehalls find within the urban growth boundary. The boundary extends from Aspen to the Pitkin County Airport, and encompasses parts of neighborhoods such as Woody Creek and West Buttermilk.
Farris and Commissioner Shellie Roy also said they would be willing to consider approval for the Mehall plan on certain parcels outside the urban growth boundary, but they would have to be ideally located.
Commissioner Mick Ireland asked what would keep the Mehalls’ partners from selling their new homes at a healthy markup to wealthy Texans who want a little place in Aspen.
“We don’t have the deep pockets necessary to build luxury homes, so we wouldn’t be competing with the multimillion dollar homes,” Beth Mehall said.
That wasn’t enough for the commissioners, however. They felt it was too risky to grant exemptions to the land-use code without some control over who lives in the houses and how much they can be sold for.
All of the commissioners said it would be necessary for the Mehalls and their partners to have their houses designated as “resident occupied” under the county housing guidelines. Such a classification would set appreciation caps on the homes and require they be owned by a working resident of Pitkin County.
Overall, the commissioners were enthusiastic about the proposal, however. They suggested the Mehalls contact a local real estate agent to see what’s available.
“Conceptually, I think it’s a good idea,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
Bob Mehall said he wasn’t surprised by anything that came out of the meeting. He wasn’t sure that he was willing to give up his free market home in Basalt’s Elk Run neighborhood for a deed restricted home in the upper valley, but he would not rule it out.
Beth Mehall said yesterday’s meeting was just a chance to see what the commissioners would say before they became too involved with their plan: They still have a long way to go before making any formal request.
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