El Jebel developer wants to hit the ‘pause’ button

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

EL JEBEL – The economy remains in rough enough shape that the developer of a proposed real estate project in El Jebel doesn’t anticipate the demand for new homes returning until 2014 at the earliest.

Developer Ace Lane is asking Eagle County to extend the initial approvals for his Tree Farm project for two years because of the poor economic conditions. Lane’s Woody Ventures LLC received what is called sketch plan approval from the Eagle County Commissioners on Sept. 1, 2009. County rules require a developer to have the next step of approvals, called preliminary plan, completed within two years.

Lane wants to build 319 residences and 85,575 square feet of new commercial space on land clustered around his water ski lake across Highway 82 from the Willits Town Center. The project would feature 150 free-market residences, 128 deed-restricted affordable housing dwellings and 41 resident-occupied (RO) units, a kind of hybrid.

A market analysis performed late last year concluded the long-term demand remains for the project, members of Lane’s team told the county commissioners during a meeting in El Jebel. But in the short-term, there will be little demand for new housing in the midvalley until 2014 or 2015, the study by Economic and Planning Systems of Denver determined.

Jon Fredericks, Lane’s planning consultant, said construction could conceivably start in 2015 or 2016, then be phased over 10 years as demand warrants.

The only member of the public to speak at the hearing urged the commissioners to reject the developer’s request for an extension. Midvalley resident and former Pitkin County Commissioner Joe Edwards said time limits exist in the land use process so approvals don’t get banked. That creates too much development at one time – when demand is high.

Speculative developers dominated the economies of the Roaring Fork Valley and many other areas in the mid-2000s, helping create the real estate bubble, Edwards said. He claimed Lane’s proposal for the Tree Farm was one of those speculative type development.

“They put in an application that was responsive to that kind of craziness,” he said.

The Lane project should be reconsidered when he is ready to restart the review, Edwards said, rather than put on hold. With time, governments typically change their regulations and require more from developers, or consider projects in a different light, he said. Therefore, he contended it wouldn’t be fair for Lane to sit on its approval.

“Obviously this is an infeasible project at this time. That’s why they haven’t gone forward with it,” Edwards said.

Michael Hoffman, Lane’s attorney, countered that the project has no vested rights after getting sketch plan approval, so it must comply with whatever standards the county applies. Fredericks told the Aspen Times after the meeting that the Tree Farm project possesses some “hallmarks” that ensure it will be a good project whenever it is reviewed. The project is transit-oriented, walkable, compact and energy efficient, he noted.

The commissioners didn’t act on Lane’s request for an extension. Commissioner John Stavney was ill and couldn’t attend the hearing. Commissioner Sara Fisher voted in favor of sketch plan approval for the Tree Farm in September; Commissioner Peter Runyon voted against approval.

Runyon noted he could kill the extension request with another “no” vote, but he said that wouldn’t be fair. He didn’t want to use a “weird parliamentary thing” during Stavney’s absence to stop the project.

Lane’s team successfully sought a tabling of the hearing until Stavney is available for a vote. The next hearing was tentatively set for April 26 at the courthouse in Eagle.


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