El Jebel project: ‘Green’ model or urban monstrosity? | AspenTimes.com

El Jebel project: ‘Green’ model or urban monstrosity?

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

The developer of the proposed Tree Farm project in El Jebel and his critics are frustrated that their issues don’t weigh more heavily in the review process.

Developer Ace Lane is frustrated that critics don’t dig deeper into his plan and background to learn about the environmental initiatives he says will set a new standard for development in the Roaring Fork Valley. He claimed after a public hearing Thursday night that his foes are concentrating too much on the numbers in his project and not the substance. Lane and his Woody Ventures LLC have proposed to build as many as 400 residences and 135,000 square feet of commercial space across Highway 82 from Whole Foods Market.

Critics are frustrated that the review process allegedly doesn’t go far enough to look at the ability of the middle Roaring Fork Valley to absorb more development. They feel the valley has reached its carrying capacity for traffic and congestion, based on their comments at Thursday’s public hearing.

Eagle County’s review is doing what it is designed to do — establishing a quasi-judicial process to examine if Lane’s plan meets or exceeds standards established in various planning documents. It’s a process that nearly every local government follows — and one that can make the average citizens’ eyes glaze over. About half of the roughly 40 people who attended Thursday’s Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission meeting departed before the public had a chance to speak. Planners for the government and Lane presented information for more than two hours, and planning commission members asked questions on technical issues.

When the public hearing was finally opened, several speakers expressed concerns about the density of the Tree Farm project. Kathy Nelson of El Jebel said 400 residences will generate a minimum of 800 additional vehicles on the roads. Current residents will pay through a diminished quality of life, she said.

Nelson said everyone she talks to is “very concerned about the density.”

“We’re looking at so many people and so many cars right here in the midvalley,” she said.

Missouri Heights resident Lesley Rameil said traffic already is so clogged at the main traffic signal in El Jebel during weekday mornings that it can take as many as eight cycles to turn eastbound onto Highway 82 from El Jebel Road. Generating more traffic less than 1 mile away at the intersection that will serve the Tree Farm will make travel considerably more difficult through that area, she said.

Karen Moculeski of Missouri Heights said she understands that people have the right to develop their property, but the effects on other people’s lives must be considered. She indicated she was frustrated that the project is favorably eyed by Eagle County because Lane proposed to build 45 apartments with rent caps, without looking at the overall impacts.

Eagle County’s land-use code requires a developer to provide 25 percent of the total housing units as affordable housing. That would boost the Tree Farm’s obligation as high as 100 units. However, because Lane has proposed rental housing, Eagle County staff is recommending that Lane receive twice the credit, reducing his obligation to 50 units. The staff further advised giving him credit for five units if the affordable housing is built in the first phase of construction. That would reduce the obligation of the Tree Farm to 45. He offered to build an additional unit as mitigation for an unrelated project, creating a total of 46 units of affordable housing.

“Are we going to say this is a great project because it’s got 46 units (of affordable housing)?” Moculeski asked.

She said the review process must consider some bigger issues. For example, most midvalley residents want to preserve the rural character of the area, she said. The Tree Farm creates an “urban center” with dense development along Highway 82, according to Moculeski.

Katherine Reppa spoke on that same theme. “We live in a little slice of paradise. It’s not going to last long with projects like this,” she said.

Three residents spoke out in favor of the project. Stephanie Lewis said that as a mother of three young children, she appreciated that the Tree Farm will provide shops and services that would allow her to stay in the midvalley rather than drive to Glenwood Springs or Aspen.

Brian Buell spoke in favor of the project’s compact design and transit-oriented development. It will provide housing where people can walk to their jobs, he said.

Lane didn’t speak at the meeting but told a reporter after the hearing that he believes his intentions are misunderstood. He had to increase the number of units he is building to be able to afford high-efficiency development, he said. Lane said it’s not greed that motivates him, as some critics contend, but a vision of building a model project. Meeting that high standard he’s aiming for will be more costly, he said.

Lane also contended the project will benefit the environment and reduce greenhouse gas production by getting people closer to their jobs. The land-use application says that the highest density of residences is within one-quarter mile of the bus stop on Highway 82, and all residences are within a one-half mile walk. Employees that are driving from New Castle or points farther to work at Whole Foods in Basalt, for example, will be able to walk to work if they live at the Tree Farm, Lane said.

The affordability of the rent-restricted units at the Tree Farm was raised as an issue Thursday. Eagle County regulations allow rents to be established based on 80 percent of Area Median Income levels. Currently, that would allow the Tree Farm to charge $1,294 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,552 for a two-bedroom apartment. The free-market apartments would be more expensive.

The next hearing of the planning commission is scheduled for 4 p.m. July 16 at the Eagle County building.