Basalt town council candidates eager to solve Pan and Fork dilemma with development, park

The Basalt Town Council candidates enjoy what moderator Cathy Markle (right) called a seventh inning stretch during a debate Monday night. The candidates from left are Ryan Slack, Gary Tennenbaum, William Infante, Carol Hawk and Bernie Grauer. Candidate Todd Hartley was unable to attend.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

The Basalt Town Council candidates are committed and eager to resolve the Pan and Fork property dispute — a controversial issue that’s dogged the town for about five years.

In a candidate debate Monday night, the five candidates present all said they are hopeful that a proposal by a new development group can break a stalemate. They all supported the concept of equally dividing the property between park and development.

The Basalt Chamber of Commerce sponsored the forum at the Basalt Library. The election is April 3 but ballots in the mail election will be sent in late March.

There are three seats up for grabs with six candidates running. Candidate Todd Hartley couldn’t attend because he was coaching his son’s basketball team.

The candidates were largely on the same page on most issues, including the big one on Basalt’s plate.

The Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. owns 2.3 acres between Midland Avenue and the Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center along Two Rivers Road. The town already owns a strip of adjacent land along the Roaring Fork River.

An investment group headed by Tim Belinski recently acquired an option to buy the land, contingent on getting a plan approved by the council.

Incumbent Councilman Gary Tennenbaum said he is optimistic that Belinski’s group will propose a plan that town residents can agree upon.

“I don’t believe we’re all that divided,” Tennenbaum said.

However, he acknowledged that he didn’t feel the prior development plan by Aspen-affiliated developer Lowe Enterprises fit the community character. A condominium-hotel was the centerpiece of that plan.

“It has to fit with the character of the town with the development,” Tennenbaum said.

Candidate William Infante said he personally felt a boutique hotel was appropriate for the site. However, after talking to developers he is convinced it wasn’t feasible.

“You can’t make it pay for 50,000 or even 80,000 square feet, so that leaves us with few alternatives, but that may be residential,” Infante said.

He said the town has in excess of $2 million in “stranded assets” in the property. Public funds were spent bringing in dirt and rock to raise the property out of the floodway to allow development and to extend utilities.

“We should have an interest in seeing the property developed,” Infante said. “The specifics are yet to be determined but I look forward to seeing a plan.”

He made it clear what he wants to see and what he believes most Basalt residents want to see.

“Most people accept that a portion of the 2.3 acres will be dedicated to additional green space. Most people accept that there will be constructed elements on the remaining 1.3 acres,” Infante said. “I accept that, too. I think it makes sense.”

Candidate Ryan Slack said compromise is key to solving the dilemma. He wants to see the Belinski group’s plan and said he opposes the town buying the entire 2.3 acres, then selling some of the site for development.

“I think buying it outright goes against our financial stability,” Slack said. “I think we need to make some exceptions (in the approval process). Density belongs downtown. I don’t think the whole thing needs to be developed.”

Slack said he wants to see a restaurant and a place where parents can hang out and watch their kids play. To get those types of amenities will require approval of residences, he said.

“I am for smart growth there with some type of residential,” Slack said.

Incumbent councilman Bernie Grauer noted that he had previously promoted the idea of buying the entire 2.3 acres with existing town funds, then selling off about half for development.

“I’m taking that proposal off the table because we know there’s a contract that exists between a new development group headed by local developer Tim Belinski,” Grauer said.

“I only suggested the outright purchase as a way to get this thing off dead center,” he added. “It’s been landlocked there for how many years now? We need to get with it.”

He supports the town paying to acquire 1 acre to expand the Basalt River Park.

“We need some commercial development to help pay for it, pay for the expenses, ensure the vitality,” he said. Grauer said he was hopeful a nonprofit such as the Art Base, a community arts center, could be part of the plan.

“I certainly would support a beer garden on that or another restaurant on that space would be very important to me,” he said.

Candidate Carol Hawk said she opposed the town’s prior direction of pursuing a purchase. She also felt the Town Council members were too vague on what they wanted.

“I think a lot of what the hold-up was is that the town wasn’t signaling exactly what the town wanted,” she said. “The zoning wasn’t in place so a developer coming in didn’t know what was expected of them and what the town wanted to see on that parcel.”

Hawk said the “vitality of downtown is dependent on some type of development” and she also wants to see the park expanded.

No candidate landed a knockout punch on the issue because their views were so similar, but it appeared that Belinski was the winner since everyone wants to see a proposal advance.

The candidate forum will be streamed from Grassroots TV’s website and rebroadcast on the station.