Pitco slashes potential for W/J housing | AspenTimes.com

Pitco slashes potential for W/J housing

Jeremy Heiman

Pitkin County moved Friday to rezone W/J Ranch to vastly reduce the potential for affordable housing on the property.

The action elicited protests from W/J representatives and an attorney for an investment firm with a stake in the property.

The rezoning applies to 112 acres of the ranch where developer John Musick applied to build 778 affordable housing units. The county’s deputy director of community development, Lance Clarke, first called for rezoning of the property last May, when Musick’s development proposal for property was before the Planning and Zoning Commission.

County staff members argued the existing zoning, AH (affordable housing) was inappropriate for the area and was instituted there under questionable circumstances. They said development of the size Musick proposed for W/J is counter to several master plans that cover the area and violates the basic planning principle that development should occur within existing population centers.

County commissioners, in a special meeting Friday, voted unanimously to rezone the property to RS-20, which would permit only five houses on the land. A proposed affordable housing overlay zone, which has yet to be approved, would allow development of 45 affordable units on the property.

Before Friday’s vote, W/J representatives argued for more time for consideration of the issue.

Peter Heinemann, a San Francisco attorney representing the investment firm Lehman Brothers Holdings, asked to meet with the commissioners in executive session (a meeting closed to the public) to come to an agreement. He announced that Lehman was the holder of the deed of trust to the property, and had received the deed as security on a loan of $13.75 million.

Heinemann said he wanted what he called a “standstill agreement” to allow time for a discussion with the commissioners and because he had not had time to review the details of Musick’s application and the rezoning proposal.

He offered to hold a lawsuit filed by Musick against the county in abeyance to allow time to restructure a plan to meet the county’s interests. Musick filed suit after his development application was denied last fall.

“Were not discussing anything in executive session,” said Commissioner Dorothea Farris, acting chairwoman in the absence of Leslie Lamont and vice chair Shellie Harper. She said there had been adequate time for Heinemann to review the record.

Commissioner Mick Ireland said he didn’t think Heinemann had the authority to enter into an agreement with the county, at any rate. He complained that W/J attorney Jack Reutzel had not been able to adequately identify the actual owner or owners of the property last year when Musick’s land-use application was discussed.

W/J architect Ted Guy also pleaded for a delay in the rezoning, citing the desperate need for affordable housing. He joked with the commissioners about not having been paid recently by Musick.

Reutzel argued that there has not been a change of circumstance that would justify a change of zoning. He said he didn’t see any urgency to rezone the McLain Flats property.

Phil Whittingham, president of the W/J Homeowners Association, representing residents of existing homes on the ranch, countered that urgency exists for the homeowners. Musick has stopped a major water line installation in mid-project, leaving a gaping 20-foot hole in the middle of the neighborhood.

Whittingham asked for the commissioners’ help in getting that and other Musick-related problems solved.

“We have been enduring a living hell over the last two years,” he said.

Woody Creek resident Jim Collins spoke in support of rezoning. He said former landowner Wink Jaffee promised the Woody Creek Caucus there would never be any further development on the ranch.

Ireland, too, said there is an urgency to complete the rezoning. He said Musick must release his hostages, including the BOCC members burdened by a Musick lawsuit and the W/J residents under the threat of special assessments and interrupted utilities.

He said keeping the lawsuits in “abeyance” as Heinemann suggested means the suits can be resumed at any time. “If he was serious, there’d be a dismissal,” Ireland said.

Commissioner Patti Clapper told those assembled that she wanted it to be clear that she supports affordable housing but would vote for the rezoning because the W/J site is not appropriate for a massive development.

Musick sued the county in district court last October after the county denied his application to build 778 affordable units. The suit seeks a reversal of the county commissioners’ decision and compensation for the money he has lost during the approval process. The suit names the Board of County Commissioners and each commissioner individually as defendants.

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