Tree Farm project in El Jebel gets green light after final administrative hurdle, despite lawsuit
El Jebel-area property owner Ace Lane crossed a final administrative hurdle Tuesday and will now be able to begin development of his Tree Farm project despite a lingering legal challenge.
Lane and his Woody Ventures LLC received final plat approval by a 3-0 vote by the Eagle County commissioners. That allows him to install infrastructure and development of the first phase of his project across Highway 82 from Whole Foods.
The first phase is on the west side of his existing Kodiak Lake ski facility. It features development of about 100,000 square feet of mixed uses or about one-fifth of the total.
Eagle County’s land-use code required Lane to meet technical criteria to get a green light. The planning staff said he met his obligations and the county commissioners agreed.
Ken Ransford, a director for a citizens’ group called Save Mid Valley, asked the commissioners to postpone a vote since the organization has mounted a legal challenge trying to overturn the approval. Save Mid Valley maintains that the county commissioners violated their own land-use code in numerous ways when they approved the proposal by a 2-1 vote in 2017. The group lost a ruling by an Eagle County District Court judge but filed an appeal Tuesday with the Colorado Court of Appeals. Ransford said a decision is expected by fall.
Assistant County Attorney Beth Oliver advised the commissioners to move ahead with a vote on final plat for phase one rather than delay. Save Mid Valley has other avenues to delay a vote, such as seeking a stay or injunction by the court, she said.
Ransford attempted at a public hearing Tuesday to speak for a second time to answer why his group cannot pursue an injunction. County commissioner chairwoman Jeanne McQueeney prohibited Ransford from speaking a second time.
Following the meeting, Ransford said Save Mid Valley couldn’t afford to seek a stay.
“We would have had to post a bond with the court to obtain an injunction to stay development, and that was prohibitive,” Ransford said in an email response to The Aspen Times. The bonding companies expect the party being insured to post collateral equal to the amount of potential damages, Ransford said. In other words, Save Mid Valley might have been forced to post an amount of money equal to what a court decided the Tree Farm project is potentially worth at build out. That could have required millions of dollars in bonds, Ransford said.
He contended during the hearing that allowing Lane to proceed with development could prejudice the legal process because the appeals court would be wary to undertake action against development already completed.
The commissioners said the legal dispute was beyond the scope of determining if the Tree Farm project qualified for final plat.
Lane’s project is for a total of 514,000 net square feet of development. There are 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial development. The commercial development includes 60,500 square feet for a hotel, but that allocation can be converted to additional residences if a hotel doesn’t pan out.
Tuesday’s public hearing attracted about 25 people. A handful spoke against the project while two voiced support.
Parker Maddux of Basalt said the overall project is too large and will add to the Roaring Fork Valley’s problems of congestion and disappearance of agricultural lands.
“If phase one were it, I’d be in support of that,” Maddux said.
The project also does too little to address low-income housing needs, he claimed.
The Tree Farm approval requires Lane to rent 40 apartments at below market rents and sell 10 condominiums with price caps. In addition, 150 units will have a “resident occupied” restriction that requires Lane to offer them to full-time workers in the valley as a first priority. However, if no local workers are found as buyers within 60 days of when they are offered, they can be sold on the free market.
Maddux urged the commissioners to “put the brakes” on future development like Lane’s project.
“Next time, don’t do this, please,” he said.
Basalt resident Greg Smith said the project would add too much growth to a valley already struggling to absorb it everywhere from the roads to the trails.
“I moved here from Los Angeles to get away from the madness and now I feel like L.A. is creeping up the back door,” Smith said.
Missouri Heights resident Michael McVoy said Eagle County was creating high density outside of a designated town.
“This community needs a new town like it needs a hole in the head,” he said.
But the project had a couple of supporters. John LaSalle said he lives closer than anyone to the Tree Farm site and welcomes the development. The project has been thoroughly discussed and hashed out, he said.
El Jebel resident Bonnie Williams said the Tree Farm has been well planned and discussed over an extraordinarily long time. Lane had approvals to build on the property as early as 1992, but two earlier versions of the project didn’t pan out. He received sketch plan approval for this project in 2009, though Save Mid Valley contends the proposal changed so much between sketch and preliminary reviews — the first and second steps — that it doesn’t comply with the land-use code.
“I know a large number of people who support this project and believe it should be approved today,” Williams said.
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