Midvalley affordable housing proposal sparks impassioned debate | AspenTimes.com

Midvalley affordable housing proposal sparks impassioned debate

One of the old storage buildings at the Willits Bend property in the midvalley would be torn down for a 75-unit afforable housing project under a current proposal. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

An affordable-housing proposal in the midvalley won significant support Thursday for whittling into demand but also extensive opposition for overwhelming its neighborhood.

Archdiocesan Housing Inc., the affordable housing arm of Catholic Charities of the Denver Archdiocese, wants to build 75 units in four buildings at the Willits Bend project off Willits Lane. The units would be a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

The proposal went before the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission for the first step in the formal review Thursday and drew a wide range of public responses. No vote was taken.

Longtime housing advocates in the valley praised the AHI for proposing what they said would be a truly affordable project. Rents would be geared toward households making 80% or less of the area median income for Eagle County.

Gail Schwartz, a former state senator and current president of Habitat for Humanity Roaring Fork, credited the archdiocese for coming up with a plan to help address the housing shortage in the valley.

David Myler, who has led efforts to try to form a regional, multi-jurisdictional entity to tackle affordable housing, said a recent study showed a shortfall of 4,000 affordable-housing units from Aspen to Rifle. Multiple projects such as the one proposed by AHI are needed to dent that demand, he said.

“Although no site is perfect, this is one of the better ones, in my mind,” Myler said.

That’s a major point of contention. Former Basalt Town Councilman Rob Leavitt said he understands “it’s almost impossible” for public officials to vote against an affordable housing project, but AHI’s proposal needs to provide more open space and parking.

Willits Bend was initially approved by Eagle County in 2006 as a unique live-work project with a modest number of units, he noted. The workshop and residences idea never took off. Three buildings were developed, but demand didn’t warrant breaking ground on the four more that were approved. The project is better known for its wild blue, yellow and red buildings than for its market success. A limited liability corporation controlled by Rob Tobias who is the owner and developer of the project has a contract to sell the undeveloped portion of the property to AHI.

The 75 units proposed by AHI represents a significant increase in the size of the project, Leavitt said. He contended the project creates a safety hazard because the new residents will have to cross Highway 82 in the morning and evening to catch a bus at the most accessible stop at Aspen Junction.

A development of that size, Leavitt said, belongs in downtown Basalt or Willits rather than the isolated site.

AHI representatives said they are working to try to secure access through adjacent private property owned by Aspen Skiing Co. to a closer bus stop at Sagewood.

Some property owners who bought into the first three buildings at Willits Bend said the new proposal for 75 residential units is a drastic departure from the original vision of the project.

“It’s not what we bought into. It’s a surprise and shock,” said Carol Hastings, a current owner of a unit.

Jill Sabella, one of the original buyers, said she bought into the project expecting eight buildings of like architecture and design. She contended a low-income housing project would “degrade” property values of the existing part of the development.

A group of owners in the existing Willits Bend project sought a temporary restraining order this week seeking to block Eagle County’s review of the AHI project until a larger legal issue is resolved. There was no court ruling before Thursday’s planning commission meeting.

The current owners also filed a complaint in Eagle County District Court contending that the AHI project will change the unique character of the project by adding 6,000 square feet, shifting building footprints, removing green space and increasing building heights. The lawsuit seeks to overturn what they contend was a flawed vote by the Willits Bend Condominium Association. The association sent a letter of consent to Eagle County regarding review of the AHI project. Four property owners endorsed that consent while 14 objected. However, the four who provided consent had a majority interest in the association, so they said the letter of consent was justified. The process is being challenged in court.

The planning commission didn’t vote on the project Thursday. It tabled further discussion until Oct. 8, though the litigation could affect the timing.

Proponents of the project don’t want to see the delay. Marian McDonough, regional director of Catholic Charities, said the Willits Bend housing is crucial for the valley. It will house teachers, firefighters and other vital workers who are getting squeezed out by the valley’s cost of living, she said.

“I think there’s this thought that these are going to be the undesirables,” McDonough said.

Other speakers countered that employee housing per se isn’t being opposed. It’s the amount proposed.