Pan and Fork controversy won’t go to ballot in Basalt
WHAT THEY SAID
About 20 people spoke on the Pan and Fork proposed ballot questions, with slightly more than half encouraging the council to let voters decide the issue in April.
Here’s a sample of comments from both sides of the debate.
Basalt property owner Norm Classen had the best line of the night when commenting on how the debate over the fate of the Pan and Fork keeps dragging on.
“This is like the road into Aspen, for Christ’s sake,” Classen said.
He opposed placing the issue on the ballot. He has been one of the steady voices lobbying the council to allow the part of the property owned by Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. for “revitalizing” Basalt through development. He said the initial intent was a “good plan” with open space and access to the river along with development. The area proposed for development has been continually whittled down, he said. It’s gone from compromise to “robbery,” Classen said.
Basalt resident Roger Adams expressed the opposite view. He said he supports a riverfront park and urged the council to place the questions on the ballot.
“There’s a lot of people who want a park there,” he said. “You can do something about it.”
Roaring Fork Valley philanthropist George Stranahan told the council the question was about doing the “right thing.” Stranahan is on the CDC board of directors and loaned money to help with the purchase of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in August 2011. The Pan and Fork was identified in town studies as imperiled by possible flooding. CDC, supported by Stranahan’s Manaus Fund, made the decision to purchase the park. At that time, it was a simple question of, “What is the right thing to do? Buy it or not?” Stranahan said.
“Tonight we are, as a public, asking, ‘What’s the right thing to do? Have a vote or not?’ he added. He urged the council to move ahead with a vote.
“This is a real opportunity for Basalt to take control of this important piece of land and decide on its future,” Stranahan concluded.
Basalt businesswoman and Planning and Zoning Commission member Tracy Bennett gave the most impassioned speech of the night.
“I am one of those that’s so adamantly oppose to this it makes my blood boil,” she said, who voice breaking during her comments over the next three or so minutes.
Bennett said town taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay to acquire more of the Pan and Fork after voting “five years ago” to buy the property and prepare a portion of it for redevelopment. (The last vote was actually in November 2013.)
“I don’t want to have to pay for it again, thank you very much,” Bennett said.
She said higher taxes from buying the property would drive up commercial rents in Basalt and hit small business owners like her. Plus, she said, there are hidden costs associated with the proposal She questioned how the town would raise additional funds to maintain and operate the park.
“There is no plan for the future,” Bennett said.
Basalt resident Doug McDonald countered by noting that the property tax increase would be smaller than what Basalt voters approved several years ago when they approved the purchase of what is now known as Old Pond Park. The fiscal impact on taxpayers will be lessened, he said, by development of some of the property and possible participation in the purchase by the open space programs of Pitkin and Eagle counties.
In the “strange bedfellows” moment of the two-plus hour hearing, David Schoenberger urged the council to listen to Town Attorney Tom Smith, who advised the board that the proposed ballot questions were legally deficient. Schoenberger, who moved from Basalt to Carbondale last year, tried to get Smith fired in 2014 for alleged biased actions against him.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Schoenberger and Bennett both raised questions about the relationship between the citizens’ committee working on Pan and Fork issues and the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp., which owns the property. The committee and property owner share an attorney, David Myler, and one of the principal committee members, Jon Fox-Rubin, is executive director of the Manaus Fund, the nonprofit that helped fund CDC’s purchase of the Pan and Fork site.
“You have a citizens’ committee that is contaminated by a developer,” Schoenberger said.
He urged the council to keep the questions off the ballot and let the issue play out through the council election in April. The mayor’s position and three council seats are up for election.
The Basalt Town Council majority declined Tuesday night to put questions on the April ballot to purchase additional land at the Pan and Fork site.
The board voted 6-1 to deny a citizen committee’s request to put questions on the ballot to buy 2.3 acres for $3 million. A second proposed question would have sought voter approval to incur debt and raise property taxes to pay it off. The committee collected signatures from about 400 registered voters seeking the ballot initiative.
Council members said legal issues plagued the request.
Town Attorney Tom Smith told the council the proposed questions didn’t meet legal requirements because they proposed administrative rather than legislative actions. They don’t pass requirements of the Colorado Constitution or the Basalt Home Rule Charter, he said.
“It would be an extreme dereliction of my duty to not follow the Constitution and charter,” Councilman Herschel Ross said. “So, I’m definitely not going to vote for this.”
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt cast the only vote to forward the questions to the ballot. “I cannot ignore this citizens’ petition,” she said.
Whitsitt proposed that the council craft alternate questions that avoid the legal problems. That was the route proposed by David Myler, attorney for the citizens’ committee. Whitsitt’s motion died by a 5-2 vote, with support coming from Councilman Gary Tennenbaum.
A crowd overflowed the council chambers into the hall outside. About 20 people spoke, with more than half supporting the purchase. (See The Aspen Times online for a sample of audience comments.)
The council majority said they believe the town government is making progress on the Pan and Fork issue after 18 months of debate.
The town teamed with the nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. in August 2011 to buy the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park. The town acquired half of the property closest to the Roaring Fork River for a park. Community Development Corp. planned to develop its 2.3 acres, but it ran into difficulties.
The citizens’ committee, led by Basalt residents Cathy Click and Jon Fox-Rubin, was frustrated by the amount of time it was taking for the council to act. It collected signatures in December and early January to urge the council to buy the property and limit development to one-half acre.
Councilman Bernie Grauer said he met with the committee leaders Sunday night to discuss their proposal. While he understands it, he cannot support it, he said. He would be violating his fiduciary duty by agreeing to purchase property without knowing if that was a fair price, he said. He noted the $3 million figure was picked because that’s what the Community Development Corp. owes its creditors for the purchase and other costs. It’s not the town’s duty to make the development corporation whole, he said.
Councilman Rick Stevens also said the town must have the ability to negotiate a contract. In addition, he disagreed with the committee’s suggested limit on development. “A half-acre doesn’t work for me,” he said.
Stevens said that even though the committee collected 400 signatures, an equally large number of residents didn’t agree that the issue should go to election.
“I’ve talked to 400 people who feel different, maybe more,” he said.
Councilman Mark Kittle said he feared putting the issue on the ballot would lead to legal problems. Smith had warned that a single citizen challenge could lead to a lengthy court battle if the council put the questions on the ballot as proposed.
“If putting it to a vote would make it go away,” Kittle said he would do it in a second. He wanted to proceed with the town’s planning on the property and allow about 35,000 to 40,000 square feet of development.
Councilman Rob Leavitt said he felt the council was making progress on the issue. He doubted the council could craft alternative ballot language in time to place a question on the April ballot.
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