Housing swap frowned upon | AspenTimes.com

Housing swap frowned upon

Jeremy Heiman

A proposal to build affordable housing on the Moore Open Space received a chilly reception from Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Board Thursday.

Chuck Vidal appeared before the board to discuss an idea he floated before the county commissioners a day earlier. The plan calls for preserving the Burlingame Ranch and building 225 units of housing now planned for Burlingame on the Moore Open Space across Maroon Creek Road from the school campus.

Board members told Vidal that building housing on the Moore property would undermine the credibility of the open space program and would violate an agreement with the Moore family. And, members said, Vidal’s proposed spring ballot issue isn’t necessary.

Vidal wants to ask voters in a spring election whether the county should do an analysis of the feasibility and impacts of putting housing on the property. The results of that study could then lead to a second ballot question, in November, asking voters whether the housing proposed for the Burlingame Ranch should instead be built on the Moore property.

Vidal’s plan calls for preserving the Burlingame and Aspen Mass properties from development by using conservation easements. Vidal, a former director of Aspen Valley Land Trust and a current AVLT board member, told the Open Space Board that he is pursuing the project as a citizen, not in affiliation with AVLT or any other interest.

“I appreciate and respect what you’re doing,” said trustee Bill Fales. “But I don’t think Moore should be on the table.”

Fales said the integrity of the county’s Open Space and Trails Program is threatened by proposals to build on deeded open space. Landowners might become hesitant to sell their land to a conservation agency that might turn that land over for development of affordable housing.

Referring to Dale Will, director of the open space program, who arranges open space purchases, Fales said: “This would make Dale’s job harder – knocking on doors and saying, `Can we buy your property and protect it for eight years?’ “

The Moore property, the first purchased for open space through the county program, was brought into the program about eight years ago.

“I think our agreement with the Moores is binding,” said board member Rick Neiley. He said he feared there might be legal consequences if the county sold the property for a use other than open space.

Vidal replied that he has been in touch with the Moores about the proposal. “They don’t back it, but they’ve said, `You go ahead and do what you’ve got to do,'” he said.

Neiley pointed out that the spring election Vidal has proposed isn’t necessary because a study of the issues could be triggered by elected officials. And the results of the election might be as confusing as the results of other recent elections.

“I’m afraid what the result will be is … everyone will have their own interpretation,” Neiley said. “Everybody knows it would be a good place for housing.”

Vidal conceded that the spring election probably isn’t necessary.

“You’re right,” he said. “But I need this ballot question to get it done.”

Michael Craig, land manager for the county, said the Moore property has value as one of the few remaining parcels made up of sagebrush-snowberry plant, which used to dominate the valley floor. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program has ranked the plant community as significant habitat that’s threatened by development in many parts of the state, he said.

“I think the big issue is whether or not we want to sacrifice another piece of land of this quality,” Craig said.

Jonathan Lowsky, Pitkin County’s wildlife biologist, said he and Craig have heard from staff members at other open space programs in Colorado, who have already heard of the proposal to build housing at Moore.

“They’re concerned that this would not only undermine the credibility of the Pitkin County Open Space Program, but programs throughout the state,” he said.

Lowsky, who has done research for a management plan for the Moore property, said both the Moore Open Space and Burlingame are important winter habitat for a good-sized mule deer herd.

Lowsky found that the Moore property is home to Brewer’s sparrows and Virginia’s warblers, both of which are listed as species of concern by the U.S. Office of Migratory Bird Management. Populations of Brewers’ sparrow are declining due to shrinking habitat, and Virginia’s warbler is vulnerable due to its narrow breeding and wintering ranges.

Open Space Director Will said it’s interesting the open space property that’s proposed for conversion to housing is one of the first to have a management plan.

“One of the greatest ironies here is we’ve been working on management plans for each of our properties, and we’ve been using Moore as a template,” Will said.

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