Many hurdles for W/J
Aspen Times Staff Writer
Well-organized opposition from the Woody Creek Caucus and a plea by Sheriff Bob Braudis likely played a major role in the downfall of the latest proposal to develop the W/J Ranch.
Ranch owner Lowe W/J Enterprises Inc. withdrew its application Tuesday to build 52 units of free-market and affordable housing on the 234-acre parcel near Woody Creek after it became apparent that it lacked support from the Pitkin County commissioners.
“Anything that prevents further development on the upper meadow is a victory,” said Woody Creek Caucus attorney Joe Edwards. “How this reasserts itself, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Lowe W/J, which has had title to the ranch since 1999, was proposing to build 12 free-market homes with accompanying mother-in-law apartments and 28 affordable housing units on the ranch. The ranch includes upper meadows at the end of McLain Flats and a partially developed lower bench above Wink Jaffee Park and the Roaring Fork River.
There are approximately 48 units owned by residents with deed restrictions under the Aspen/Pitkin County Affordable Housing Program.
Lowe W/J’s latest application was actually met with relief by many in the community, including current residents. The proposal to build 52 homes was considered much more sane than previous owner John Musick’s unsuccessful attempt to build a small city of 778 affordable housing units.
At Tuesday night’s hearing, it was clear that three commissioners, Patti Clapper, Shellie Roy and Dorothea Farris, didn’t really want to turn down the proposal. All said they had always considered the ranch a viable spot for additional affordable housing, just not in the manner proposed by Musick.
“I feel somewhat responsible for Lowe W/J being in this situation,” Roy said near the end of the seven-hour hearing. “When they first came in, we pleaded with them to come back with a reasonable proposal.”
Both Roy and Clapper were indicating at that moment that they would prefer to table the application so the applicant and neighbors could work out an agreement for something in between the 52 units Lowe W/J wants and the five units that the Woody Creek Caucus maintains is the maximum allowed.
But after Farris indicated she would vote to deny the application, Lowe W/J president Jim DeFrancia said he would pull the application rather than have it defeated.
The hearing began with testimony against the proposal. It was the second part of a public hearing process that began in early February, when Lowe W/J presented its development plans for the ranch.
Sheriff Braudis led things off by saying he opposed the application because of the likely impact on roads and traffic enforcement. Citing the problems with the Smith Hill intersection at Highway 82, a likely access point for whatever is built at the W/J, and increasing commuter use of McLain Flats Road, Braudis said he couldn’t support the proposal.
“The current zoning prevents urban population density in this rural area of the county,” he said.
The Woody Creek Caucus presentation, led by Dwight Shellman, featured testimony from land-use experts that countered testimony given last month by Lowe W/J’s experts.
Where Lowe W/J had claimed its proposal fit in with surrounding development, the caucus attempted to show that it didn’t. Where Lowe W/J demonstrated how its plan fit in with the citizen master plans on land use and housing that apply to the area, the caucus demonstrated its contradictions with those plans.
Consultant Alan Richmond pointed out that the downvalley master plan, the citizen housing plan and the Aspen Area Community Plan all directed development out of rural sections of the county and into the urban areas.
“If the W/J is allowed to develop in an urban/suburban type of pattern, what’s to stop the same thing from happening to Mary Jane Garth’s Aspen Valley Ranch or the Moore Property,” Richmond asked. “Those owners are watching what’s happening with this application.”
Much of the Woody Creek Caucus’s opposition rested on a 1989 agreement between the county and Wink Jaffee, who owned the ranch from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, that appears to have sterilized the upper meadows of the ranch from further development.
Jaffee came before the commissioners in 1989 seeking permission to build 27 rental units in addition to 35 that were already on the ranch. The county agreed to allow the new units, and legalize the existing ones that had been built without permits, in exchange for an agreement that the upper meadows would have “no additional development potential.”
Shellman and Edwards both pointed out that there were several subsequent agreements and actions that reconfirmed the preservation of the upper meadows, including the 1999 decision to rezone the lower portion of the ranch, limiting future development to just five free-market homes.
Edwards also introduced some of the financial history of the property, estimating that between them, Jaffee and Musick pocketed about $30 million through various development schemes involving ranch property.
Edwards asserted that the real owner of the ranch was Lehman Bros. Holdings, an arm of the New York-based investment banking firm, which loaned Musick $13.75 million in the mid-1990s.
The deed that Musick signed over as collateral included the undevelopable upper meadows and the lower bench that had been partially developed by Jaffee. The lower bench was zoned for affordable housing at the time, but county records indicate that zoning designation had dubious legal standing.
Edwards and the caucus maintain Lehman failed to investigate the property’s history and is now stuck with a dud loan, which Musick defaulted on in 1999.
“Lowe W/J is a workout company hired by the lender to try and salvage value,” Edwards said.
“You have a lender who failed to do due diligence and made a mistake, and is now trying to place the burden of that mistake on the community.”
Lowe W/J’s DeFrancia said that Lehman was still a lender on the property, but that ownership belonged to Lowe W/J Inc., which was a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Lowe Enterprise Inc. of Los Angeles. DeFrancia said he is one of 35 executive employee shareholders who own the parent company.
There was a fair amount of testimony in favor of the application, mostly from residents of the existing housing on the ranch who have already realized benefits from Lowe W/J’s ownership. The company has completed some of the road and utility improvements that were promised but never completed by both Jaffee and Musick.
“Lowe has stepped forward and really helped us finish what Musick didn’t complete,” said W/J resident Becky Gilbert.
She said she would love it if more people like her could live in what she described as one of the best places in the world. “I wouldn’t move back to town even if someone gave me a house,” she said.
“I still think W/J Ranch has room for more quality affordable housing and keep that rural feel,” said W/J Homeowners Association board member Laura Foster.
But the agreements and actions of prior county commissioners made it difficult for even the commissioners who were pleased with Lowe W/J’s application.
Commissioner Farris kept returning to the fact that these prior agreements existed, even as she expressed a desire to approve something similar to Lowe’s proposal. Roy also mentioned the prior agreements as she sought justification to back the proposal.
In the end, it was clear that Farris was ready to join Commissioners Mick Ireland and Jack Hatfield in supporting a motion to deny.
“Just to finish a controversy, you don’t make a wrong decision,” Hatfield said, explaining his opposition.
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