Eagle County candidates share few political views
EAGLE COUNTY ” Two political veterans running for an Eagle County commissioner seat are giving voters clear-cut options on affordable housing and growth management.
Challenger Dick Gustafson is a champion of the free market. He doesn’t want Eagle County government impinging on the real estate development industry and he damn sure doesn’t want the government building affordable housing or forcing developers to do it.
Incumbent Peter Runyon, 63, says the economic forces at work in the county have driven land prices so high that the government must intervene to assure that affordable housing gets built for workers. And growth has run so rampant since 1990 that the county must manage it more strictly to preserve the quality of life, he said.
Gustafson served two terms as an Eagle County commissioner, from 1984 to 1993.
The Republican has an MBA and is a fiscal conservative who is making restoration of “reasonable property taxes” a primary campaign theme.
Runyon is a Democrat who is championing “managed growth, controlled traffic and environmental sustainability in his campaign. He was elected four years ago and is approaching the end of the term.
Runyon and Gustafson are running for the district one seat. It is an at-large election, so all Eagle County voters cast ballots in the race, including residents of the Basalt and El Jebel portion of the country.
Runyon campaigned in 2004 on the need to control growth in Eagle County and he is staying consistent with that message four years later.
There are between 10,000 and 14,000 residential units approved but unbuilt in Eagle County and its towns, Runyon said. A county study is underway to get more precise data.
Most if not all of those units will be second homes or upper-end primary homes that are unaffordable for local workers, he said. So development of those units will create additional jobs but not provide housing for the necessary workers ” exacerbating existing condition, Runyon said.
The county government has taken action in two ways to deal with those conditions. First, it has created a growth management system that requires each new development proposal to go through a “sustainable community index” to gauge how it will affect existing conditions, and what mitigation steps must be taken. It is a system designed to make developers more accountable for their impacts.
The county commissioners have also toughened regulations on ridgeline development, increased stream setbacks and given density bonuses for clustered development that preserves more open space.
The county also enacted affordable housing requirements on developers, which Runyon wholeheartedly supports. “Work force, affordable housing is as much of our infrastructure as roads, bridges and sewer,” he said.
The new rules require 30 percent of the square footage in residential projects to be affordable housing. Commercial development must offset all of the jobs it creates with housing.
“If we approve a new unit, we don’t want to dig the hole any deeper,” Runyon said. “The reality is we’re already 3,500 units in the hole.”
The county government has also started investing funds in affordable housing projects. In most areas of the country, that isn’t necessary. But with the economics of Eagle County, like Pitkin County, the government must intervene, Runyon said.
Gustafson said the commissioners placed too many controls on developers. He said he supports “smart growth,” but is against strict growth controls. About 65 percent of Eagle County’s economy is tied to real estate development and construction, he noted.
“You kill that industry, you kill Eagle County,” he said.
Gustafson said affordable housing can be built by the private sector with government cooperation, not government controls. He doesn’t want the county to create a class of people locked into what he calls “welfare housing.” That will happen when the county creates deed restrictions that place limits on the income and assets of housing buyers, then caps the appreciation on their residences. Deed-restricted housing doesn’t give people a chance to build equity and use it to move into a different residence, he said.
Gustafson moved to Vail in 1973 and opened a hardware store a short time later. He didn’t rely on the government to house his family or provide housing for his employees at the store, which he owned until 1981.
“As the saying goes, you have to pay your dues to live in Vail,” he said.
Gustafson is convinced that developers are ready, willing and able to build affordable housing. “I believe from the developers I’ve talked to, they’re standing in line to do this,” he said.
There will always be developers that build projects that provide the highest return ” like expensive second homes, he acknowledged. But other developers see the need for affordable housing and will provide it, he claimed.
The county’s current approach relies on regulations that are “so bloody complicated,” Gustafson said. Developers can pay a fee in lieu of housing that equates in his mind to an “illegal tax.”
Gustafson is also “violently opposed” to the county government investing taxpayer dollars in affordable housing projects, like it did in Gypsum. The county invested $4.5 million to buy into a 339-unit project that was approved but not built. It is working with a private developer that will deed restrict two-thirds of the units.
Runyon said that approach makes sense because the county will recoup funds through the sale of units, then reinvest them in other housing projects. He said he disagrees with his opponent’s approach to let the free market provide the housing.
“I would argue that’s a luxury we can no longer afford,” Runyon said.
“We have a lot of philosophical differences,” Gustafson said of he and Runyon.
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Development in Basalt barely skipped a beat in 2020 despite the coronavirus. It’s expected to be busier next year.