Eagle County says review process for El Jebel project is justified

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Eagle County officials insist their decision was justified to allow Ace Lane’s Tree Farm project to advance in the review process despite major changes halfway through.

Assistant County Attorney Beth Ayres Oliver told the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission on Thursday night that her office reviewed claims made by multiple critics that the project should have gone back to square one in the review process. The Attorney’s Office advised the Planning Commission that the project was rightfully allowed to advance from the first round of review, called sketch-plan approval, to the second round, called preliminary plan, she said.

Eagle County commissioners approved Lane’s proposal in the first round by a 2-1 vote in 2009. At that time, the proposal was for 319 residences, including 108 deed-restricted units, and 96,375 square feet of commercial space.

The project was put into mothballs during the recession and resurrected in June 2014. Lane is now seeking approval for as many as 400 residences, including 45 units of affordable housing. He is seeking approval for nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space.

Joe Edwards, a growth-control proponent and former Pitkin County commissioner, told the Planning Commission on Thursday that the project has changed too drastically to be reviewed without going back to square one.

“That’s just simply not the same application that got approved,” he said. The commercial space increased 40 percent and the affordable housing was cut by 73 percent, he said.

Edwards, an attorney, said the developer is supposed to stick with the original application during the preliminary plan review and address issues raised with the sketch plan. To say this preliminary plan conforms to the sketch plan would be a “bastardization” of the definition, he claimed.

Edwards also criticized the Eagle County Planning Office for its handling of the application. He claimed it forgot its role as a regulator for the public good.

“The Planning Office seemed to be, in this case, more of a facilitator than a regulator,” Edwards said.

Ayres Oliver countered that the sketch plan is designed to inform county officials and the public about a developer’s general ideas. It’s a time to discuss a range of units and the types of use, she said, citing the county land-use code. The preliminary plan is where the details get fleshed out, she said.

“If they had to be exactly the same, there would be no point in having a preliminary plan review,” Ayres Oliver said. “There is nothing in the land-use code that says the information presented at preliminary plan has to be identical to what was presented at sketch.”

“It’s not an identical word-for-word or number-for-number comparison when you make your evaluation,” she later added.

Scot Hunn, the county staff planner handling the application, noted that the county has adopted different affordable-housing guidelines since 2009, which allow the developer’s plan to change.

All three county commissioner seats have turned over since 2009, as well. The commissioner with the swing vote in 2009 said at the time she approved the project because of the high amount of affordable housing it provided, so it is unclear if the project would have earned sketch-plan approval in its current form.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to deliberate about the project Nov. 5. It makes advisory votes for the county commissioners on land-use issues in the Eagle County portion of the Roaring Fork Valley.