El Jebel project earns key county vote
September 2, 2009
EL JEBEL – The Eagle County Commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday night to give conceptual approval to developer Ace Lane’s controversial Tree Farm project in El Jebel.
Commissioners Sara Fisher and Jon Stavney voted for the proposal over the objections of the Basalt town government. Commissioner Peter Runyon voted against the project.
Lane wants to build 319 residences and 96,000 square feet of commercial space across Highway 82 from the Willits Town Center. The proposal has divided midvalley residents. Supporters tout the project’s affordable housing, pedestrian and transit orientation, and energy efficiency standards that far exceed Eagle County’s building code and national LEED standards.
Of the 319 residences, 169 units or 53 percent will be affordable housing. Lane will build a solar farm to supply a significant share of the electricity for the homes.
Foes said the project is too dense – especially since it is in one of the heaviest populated parts of the valley. They said the estimated 3,700 vehicle trips the project will generate daily will clog roads to an unacceptable level. They also voiced concerns during three public hearings about the project creating overcrowding in Basalt schools and placing too great of demand on services like police protection. Basalt officials also worried that the additional commercial property might create a glut of shops and restaurants in the midvalley and make it difficult for any to thrive.
Stavney and Runyon voted the way they indicated they would in a prior meeting. Stavney said Lane’s proposal met or exceeded all the standards in both the general Eagle County land-use plan and a separate guide specifically designed for the midvalley. He said the Tree Farm’s greatest merit was its affordable housing.
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Stavney also credited Lane’s development team with addressing many of the concerns of Basalt. As an example, the Tree Farm will explore using some mechanism to raise funds to pay for additional midvalley services and ease its drain on Basalt’s infrastructure.
Stavney insisted that he was living up to the “spirit” of an agreement between Eagle County and Basalt to give the other jurisdiction special consideration in land-use reviews. Basalt Mayor Leroy Duroux said after the meeting that the Town Council would disagree with Stavney’s assessment. Basalt sought numerous conditions for the approval of the project. Some were honored; others were given lip service.
Runyon said the county’s land-use review process is skewed to favor development. Even if the Tree Farm meets many standards, the commission still didn’t have to approve it because of its impacts, he said. Runyon, a dedicated slow-growth proponent, opposed the project on the grounds that the midvalley already has an enormous amount of approved but unbuilt units.
He noted that Lane’s land-use planner, Jon Fredericks, said in an earlier presentation that approval of the Tree Farm in the valley floor will ease growth pressure in far-flung parts of the midvalley, like Missouri Heights.
“It does not take away those rights up there in Missouri Heights,” Runyon countered. It is a matter of time before those areas get developed as well, he said. The result is everything gets developed.
“I will respectfully not vote for approval,” Runyon said.
That left Fisher as the swing vote. Fisher said that when she campaigned for her first election as commissioner two years ago, she heard an overwhelming demand from Roaring Fork Valley residents for affordable housing. She indicated that trumped the public sentiment against growth she heard during review of the Tree Farm.
Fisher downplayed the significance of the commissioners’ approval for the project at this stage, which is formally known as “sketch plan approval.” It is the first of three approvals needed by a project, she noted. The commissioners aren’t obligated to give the next round of approval based on this first-round vote.
However, county commissioners rarely reverse their vote after a first-round approval.
The second round of review won’t begin for months because Lane’s team must undertake numerous additional studies or hire independent parties to dive into issues like traffic generation and a “green audit” to gauge the project’s environmental attributes.