Pressure mounts in Basalt to ease growth controls
BASALT – Basalt’s influential town manager is urging officials there to adopt a more “pro-business agenda” and drop some land-use regulations he says are impeding growth.Town Manager Bill Kane shared what he labeled some “brutally honest” comments in a joint meeting with the Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission last week. He noted that Basalt hasn’t processed one development application in the past 3 1/2 years.”The inconvenient truth is we’re digging out at an almost imperceptible rate,” Kane said.His assessment came while members of the council and planning commission were holding a work session to discuss altering the Communities Priorities Scoring System.In a nutshell, that process requires applications for residential projects of four or more units and commercial projects larger than 1,000 square feet to go through a scoring system. A higher score is achieved by offering amenities deemed as beneficial in the town master plan. Developers can apply for scoring twice per year, and then they compete for the highest scores. There are 32 residential approvals available per year. There is no growth quota for commercial projects.That’s how it works in theory. The system hasn’t been put to the test because the economy has snuffed development.Kane called the scoring system the “anti-growth pillar” of the town’s regulations. “I’ve just got to tell you, that’s a cannon to swat a fly here,” he said.The system essentially sends a negative message: “If you’re proposing to develop land, we don’t want you here,” Kane said.The scoring system was approved in 2009, before most of the current council members were serving. There are numerous exemptions, including for the development of hotels.Although no vote was taken, the majority of members of the council and Planning Commission expressed agreement with Kane. Council members Rick Stevens, Glenn Rappaport, Anne Freedman and Robert Leavitt, as well as various planning commissioners, said they didn’t see a need for the competitive aspect of the scoring. Rappaport also proposed expanded exemptions for commercial projects.Freedman suggested suspending the town’s scoring system altogether for possibly as long as five years, until the economy recovers.”We need to draw the jobs here,” she said. “We need to keep the economy going.”Stevens, president of a construction firm, said his opposition to Basalt’s scoring system isn’t about creating jobs for construction workers. He said many of the longtime, local construction companies want sustainable growth, not a return of the boom times before the recession. “We don’t want to be the driver of the economy anymore,” he said.Stevens expressed support for returning to the growth-regulation system enacted with the 1999 master plan. It was simpler, he said, and gave developers a relatively quick indication on whether their projects would fly.”There’s nothing worse than a long ‘no'” in the government review process, Stevens said.Kane suggested that the scoring could be used strictly as an advisory tool that helps developers gauge how their application would fare in the review process rather than a competitive layer in the review.Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Councilman Herschel Ross challenged the premise that the scoring system is impeding growth. Ross said he wants to leave the system in place because growth pressures will return.”Why are we messing with it? Why don’t we leave it alone?” Ross asked.Whitsitt noted that there are major development projects on the cusp of entering the town’s review process. They aren’t affected by the scoring system because of exemptions.A nonprofit organization is proposing redevelopment of the Pan & Fork Mobile Home Park. The proposal is for commercial, office and residential space as well as a hotel. In the South Side neighborhood, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation is preparing an application for a continuous care community for senior citizens.In addition, Whole Foods Market is inching toward an opening in mid-August. Town officials anticipate the new grocery store and adjacent commercial activity will infuse Basalt with sales tax revenues.Whitsitt said real estate professionals tell her it is banks’ lending policies, not Basalt’s land-use code, that are blocking development activity. She said there are roughly 600 residential units approved but unbuilt in Basalt. She contended that easing growth regulations on residential property isn’t going to create jobs or spur growth.”What are we trying to fix?” Whitsitt asked.Kane said many of the 600 approved units would never be built. They were approved during different economic times.”This is an entirely different paradigm we’re dealing with now,” Kane said, insisting that it is time for the town to “reset” its rules and be more accommodating to development to assure its economic health.The implications on the growth-control measures that were a top priority for the council in 2009 are uncertain. At the least, it appears that Basalt’s scoring system will be altered. In addition, growth-control regulations independent of the scoring system will be reviewed. Rappaport proposed re-examining affordable-housing requirements for commercial projects. Right now, commercial developers of projects larger than 2,500 square feet must provide housing for 25 percent of the employees generated. Rappaport said it is a “deal killer” for businesses when they have to provide the housing. It makes no sense for Basalt, as a bedroom community, to have rules that make it tough for businesses to open in town.The Planning Commission and council will dive into the details of the land-use regulations later this summer and determine whether there should be email@example.com
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