Pine Creek gets deal on housing | AspenTimes.com

Pine Creek gets deal on housing

Joel Stonington

The Pitkin County commissioners voted Wednesday to let the Pine Creek Cookhouse off the affordable housing hook.Taking advantage of a small window of opportunity, Pine Creek Cookhouse owner John Wilcox garnered an agreement from the county that significantly lowers the cost of complying with a 5-year-old development agreement.The decision, after an unusual executive session in the middle of the hearing, saved the Pine Creek Cookhouse as much as $1.2 million in fees or construction costs for employee housing. Wilcox convinced the county to let him out of part of his old agreement on affordable housing mitigation. In 2001, the county approved a master plan for Ashcroft Ski Tours, which includes the Pine Creek Cookhouse. The plan required housing mitigation for full-time employees of the operation. The master plan required housing for 16.4 “full-time-equivalent employees,” or FTEs. Businesses must either provide employee housing or pay a fee that would allow the county to purchase or build that same housing. Those requirements are measured in FTEs, one of which is equivalent to a 40-hour work week. In 2001, the cookhouse proposed mitigating 14.5 FTEs with housing and the remaining 1.9 FTEs with a cash-in-lieu payment. Commissioners approved the plan; it included a bunkhouse on site that could accommodate eight workers.That deal became considerably less attractive to Wilcox in June 2005, when the county commissioners significantly reduced the housing impact fees for new developments. The commissioners also decided that commercial development would pay just 25 percent of the new, lower fee. In other words, residential development pays four times as much in housing fees as commercial development.On Wednesday, Pitkin County allowed Wilcox to reduce his affordable housing obligation significantly with a cash-in-lieu payment of $53,394 instead of building the housing for the 14.5 FTEs. Under the original 2001 agreement, the cost to the restaurant would have been as much as $1.2 million.Asked if $53,000 would mitigate the affordable housing impact of six full-time employees, Commissioner Dorothea Farris responded, “Probably not, but until we do another review, that’s the number we have.”County Manager Hilary Smith said Wednesday that the mitigation requirements for commercial development are under review with the help of a consultant. Smith said that when the commissioners revised the housing mitigation rules last year, they recognized that commercial development was getting off lightly. But they also saw the need to readjust the housing mitigation requirements for residential construction, which accounts for the bulk of development in unincorporated sections of the county. After adopting the new fees, “they realized the level for commercial development was too low,” she said.Smith said the plan has been to raise the housing mitigation level for commercial development to more realistic levels. The adoption of a new land-use code, which commissioners completed last week, has delayed that work, however.Wilcox initially complained about still having to build the bunkhouse, which apparently would interrupt the view plane of the restaurant and increase traffic in a place where very little exists. Jim Stark, the winter sports administrator of the White River National Forest, backed up Wilcox by saying the national forest did not want any more units in Ashcroft than absolutely necessary. “The county has a desire to not clutter up the view plane, too,” Farris said. “I think we went overboard being fair.”Commissioner Mick Ireland was not present.According to County Attorney John Ely, the commissioners had a good deal of legal wiggle room.”It seems like we have a lot of discretion here,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said. “We could stick to our guns and say, ‘Let’s do it the old way.'”Hatfield eventually proposed a compromise whereby the remaining 1.9 FTEs could either be paid off using the old fee structure, at a cost of $327,122.60, or the cookhouse could buy an off-site unit that would enter into Pitkin County affordable housing. Although Wilcox initially objected to Hatfield’s deal, arguing that all his cash-in-lieu payments should be reduced, the business owner finally agreed.The county gave the cookhouse until April 1, 2006, to either buy the unit or pay the county the fee. The decision came after an unusual executive session Hatfield called to ask Ely for legal advice. “I’m feeling very uncomfortable here,” Hatfield said before the executive session. “Affordable housing is very important in our community.”Immediately upon returning, Hatfield made what proved to be the final proposal.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com