Basalt officials hope to find elusive perfect growth formula

Basalt is updating its master plan, which sets aspirational goals and outlines the amount and type of growth. The Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission are ironing out differences in their visions.
Aspen Times file

Basalt officials are determined to try to get the growth equation right — striking a balance between being too restrictive and ending up with problems like Aspen’s or being too lax and destroying the midvalley quality of life.

In a joint meeting Tuesday night, the Town Council and some Planning and Zoning Commission members vowed to get an updated master plan approved before the April 7 election when as many as four of the seven positions could turn over. To get there, they’re going to have to reach some conclusions on the amount and type of development Basalt should accommodate.

Identifying what they don’t want proved to be easier Tuesday night.

Longtime planning commission member Bill Maron warned against what he dubbed the “his and her’s Ferrari” factor. He said when he leaves his job as an architect in Aspen, he occasionally drives through the West End and can’t help but notice it’s mostly a ghost town. But on one of his trips, the homeowners happened to be there with their garage door open, displaying one Ferrari for him and one for her.

That’s a result of restrictive growth policies that drove prices up and everyone but the richest buyers out, Maron said. He argued that Basalt doesn’t want to get so restrictive that it forces its remaining working class out.

Councilman Auden Schendler also cautioned against clamping down too much on growth.

“When I hear ‘protect quality of life’ I think it’s code for ‘don’t develop anything more in town,’” Schendler said.

The growth control policies of Aspen and Pitkin County in the 1970s didn’t result in the best outcome, he said.

“The West End of Aspen isn’t a good example of how towns should be,” Schendler said.

He said he wants to see the master plan allow high-density development within town and lower density the farther available land is from the core.

The debate didn’t pit growth versus no-growth factions against one another. However, the majority of council members were clearly wary of creating a master plan that invites a level of growth that roads, schools and other infrastructure cannot handle.

Councilman Ryan Slack said the town cannot look just at how many residential units and how much commercial space can be accommodated. It must also look at how everything from traffic to child care is affected.

Whitsitt said the typical land-use review, such as Eagle County’s consideration of Ace Lane’s Tree Farm project, includes a slew of experts testifying that water and sewer service, roads and schools have capacity to accommodate growth.

“And, yet, get real. We already hear from everybody that has to commute that they can’t get through the midvalley,” Whitsitt said. “We are already choking to death, and we’re going to build another Willits on the other side of the highway — we can accommodate that, there’s capacity for that. That’s a crock. There is not capacity.”

Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said the council’s responsibility to the public is to approve a master plan that makes quality of life a priority and creates a sustainable community. The downvalley school district recently had to seek voter approval for a $120 million bond issue to accommodate the growth of its towns and counties, he noted.

“Are we going to keep that kind of trajectory going and not address it?” he asked.

Councilwoman Katie Schwoerer said her view on growth is colored by the fact that there is only one artery for the valley with Highway 82.

“What I think of is the night of the Lake Christine Fire,” she said. Many people didn’t know where to go to be safe. Highway 82 was a mass traffic jam.

“There was traffic everywhere. The roads were packed and we were having Armageddon in our backyard,” she said. “So they can keep talking out how we have enough water, daycare, natural resources and on and on. They can say we have capacity. But when the proverbial stuff hits the fan, we have one road and we’re talking about tripling our population.”

She said from a sustainability perspective, Basalt should support the redevelopment of the former Clark’s Market parcel in the center of town and call it good.

“The way that we’ve thought, the way that we’ve developed doesn’t make sense anymore,” Schwoerer said.

Schendler said he felt the draft master plan that the planning commission has worked on for months is “80 percent” complete and just needs some tweaks. The plan’s strengths include identifying aspirational goals, relating to the town’s strategic plan and laying out an environmental plan.

The majority of the council and the three planning commission members who were present agreed that the plan is good and mostly complete. Hashing out the remaining 20% will be the hard part during meetings in February and March.