Next development plan for W/J again has opponents
April 23, 2002
The W/J Ranch has been at the center of controversy in the upper valley on and off for the better part of two decades.Former owners John Musick and Wink Jaffee found themselves at odds with the county and many Woody Creek citizens when they proposed a high-density affordable housing enclave or just about anything else for the property.The latest owner, Lowe W/J LLC, now finds itself caught up in a similar storm of opposition. And that’s despite an application for a 40-unit mix of free-market and affordable housing that is considerably less intense than anything proposed in recent years.Jaffee partly succeeded in his tussles with the county, and the legacy of his development can be seen in the form of 63 existing affordable housing units scattered around the ranch. Musick failed with his development plan for 778 units on the ranch, and his legacy is the aftertaste from the bitter public battle over his proposal.Los Angeles-based Lowe W/J’s proposal received a unanimous thumbs-up last week from the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Board. The board was enthused by the 28 units of affordable housing, built by the developer, that come with the project.Housing board president Tim Semrau called the project “handsome,” but also noted that several layers of approval must still be obtained before it is built. In addition to the standard development approvals, the land-use zoning at the W/J Ranch needs to change before the project is approved.Until 1999, the property was zoned for affordable housing, but after it rejected Musick’s proposal for 778 units, the county downzoned the land to limit development to one home for every 20 acres. By the county’s own standards, Lowe has the right to develop five luxury homes on the ranch’s lower bench.And to make sure it stays that way, neighbors in the White Star Homeowners Association and the Woody Creek neighborhood have joined forces to bankroll opposition to the Lowe W/J project. So in addition to answering questions raised by the county community development department and overcoming a recommendation of denial from the city’s community development department, Lowe W/J now faces challenges from a well-known local lawyer and a host of highly paid consultants.Lowe W/J is seeking approval for 12 free-market houses on the upper bench at the north end of McLain Flats on the 234-acre ranch. Development consultant Stan Clauson, Lowe’s primary spokesman for the project, noted that the free-market homes are on relatively small plots of land, mostly between 2.25 and 2.5 acres, in order to reduce their impact on wildlife and the neighborhood. Lowe W/J is also asking for the right to build a caretaker unit with each free-market home; Clauson said it would be up to the purchaser and not the developer to decide whether the extra unit is built.The new affordable housing would be located next to an existing cluster of affordable housing on W/J’s lower bench. Units would be sold through the housing program’s lottery system to people whose income and assets don’t exceed certain limits.The application contains none of the resident-occupied, high-end affordable housing that was at the center of Lowe’s proposal last year. The company withdrew its proposal to build 141 units last fall, after the county planning and zoning commission recommended denial.The proposal’s call for construction of a waste water treatment facility to serve the new and existing units on the ranch may prove to be a big selling point for Lowe W/J.Each of the existing units disposes of waste water through a septic tank. Although there have been no major failures reported so far, county health officials say many of the systems are reaching the end of their shelf life. They are also too small to handle remodels and expansion of the existing units.In an effort to calm worries that the waste water treatment facility will become an impetus for further development, Lowe is promising to make it no larger than necessary to handle flows from the ranch once it is built out.The application also offers up open space, through both easements and donation. Clauson said his client would like to see an easement placed over 64 acres of irrigated fields on the upper and lower benches; the land would remain property of the homeowners. Lowe is offering an outright donation of 48 acres, some of which surrounds the Rio Grande Trail, to the county open space and trails program.”I would note that there are no critical wildlife areas affected by our proposal,” Clauson said. “The areas that [county wildlife biologist] Jonathan Lowsky raised concern about have been avoided.”He also pointed out that the latest application is dramatically different in scope than anything proposed in recent years, by either Musick or Lowe W/J.”We would hope the Woody Creek neighborhood recognizes that this represents a way to bring an end to the long and contentious situation with the W/J Ranch in a way that has minimal impacts on their neighborhood,” he said.Instead, the Woody Creek neighborhood is already on the warpath.In a brief submitted to the Pitkin County Community Development Department last Wednesday, Woody Creek and White Star attorney Joe Edwards raised issue with the proposal on several legal points, including a claim that the upper bench of the W/J is already preserved by an open space easement.In 1989, according to Edward’s account, Wink Jaffee agreed to preserve the upper bench of ranch land in exchange for the right to develop the lower bench. Edwards said Jaffee offered to preserve the upper bench if he could transfer development onto the lower bench, adding 27 more single-family units to the stock of 33 that already existed on the upper and lower benches.”The commitment against further development on the upper bench was offered by the applicant to forestall further neighborhood opposition,” Edwards wrote in the April 17 memo.The memo then moves on to 1994, when the new owner, John Musick, sold off the developed lots, which were rented to the Aspen area’s working class, to the renters and others who qualified. Edwards noted that Musick represented the ranch as “fully developed” in order to obtain an exemption from the county’s expensive subdivision approval process. The county granted Musick his subdivision, and the housing built by Jaffee went from being rental to owner-occupied units.”A landowner cannot offer to commit a parcel to open space and receive a transfer of density to an upzoned part of the property, obtain a density bonus, obtain a subdivision exemption for fully developed lands, sell off the residential units and then turn around and get another rezoning to develop the previously committed open space,” Edwards wrote. “That is what is being requested with this application.”Clauson said he understands the 1989 commitment to be nonbinding, because it was made in connection to a development approval that was never built.Woody Creek and White Star have also submitted a traffic analysis that comes in with much higher numbers than the analysis provided by the applicant. So when the P&Z sees the application on May 14, it is going to have to sort out the competing numbers and legal interpretations.It will also have to weigh the Aspen Community Development Department recommendation for denial, which is based primarily on the fact that the W/J Ranch is located outside the urban growth boundary.