Proposal withdrawn for 75-unit low-income housing project in Basalt

Housing arm of Denver Catholic Archdiocese stymied by lawsuit filed by neighbors of site

The fate of a 75-unit low-income housing project proposed in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley is in doubt because of litigation filed by neighboring property owners.

The housing arm of the Denver Catholic Archdiocese proposed the project on an unbuilt portion of a midvalley subdivision called Willits Bend. The review by Eagle County abruptly stopped last fall and last month the development application was withdrawn.

Robert Tobias, representing Willits Bend LLC, sent notification to the Eagle County Planning Department on Dec. 19 that Archdiocesan Housing Inc. was no longer authorized to apply for the housing project. AHI had a contract to purchase land from Willits Bend LLC, contingent on approval of its project.

“AHI’s authority is now terminated,” Tobias’ letter said. “Willits Bend LLC hereby requests that you withdraw the application to amend the Willits Bend PUD.”

Tobias said in an interview Friday that Archdiocesan Housing Inc. was offering affordable housing “on a silver platter.” No free-market development was associated with the project. All it needed was adjustment to the approvals.

“It’s definitely up in the air,” Tobias said. “This was a typical NIMBY-type experience.”

NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Backyard, a derogatory term meaning entrenched landowners are wary of most proposed changes in their neighborhood.

Willits Bend LLC is looking at months or possibly years of litigation to settle the land-use dispute. Eleven individuals or companies that purchased units at Willits Bend are plaintiffs in the lawsuit that claims the proposed affordable housing is out of character with the project they bought into and with the vision Tobias espoused. They said they would suffer loss of value if the housing were built. Willits Bend was built as a live-work development, where light industrial and commercial uses were mixed with residences. The development features brightly colored blue and yellow buildings along Willits Lane.

“This application would crater the ‘distinctive community’ that was created by the developer and touted by Tobias and was preserved very recently in the Third Amendment enacted to ensure that nothing like this could happen,” the lawsuit said. “Yet, Tobias hijacked that Architectural Review Committee process and rubber stamped an ‘ARC’ approval well beyond any authority ARC had.”

In essence, the 11 owners of Willits Bend units contend Tobias is pulling a bait-and-switch: he sold them property under a specific premise and now he’s trying to alter the development approvals to allow for the low-income housing.

Tobias said he is simply responding to market forces. The approvals were granted 13 years ago by Eagle County, he said. But after the 2008 recession, demand fell flat for the type of development that Willits Bend offered.

“Things change,” he said. And in his view, the low-income housing project was the perfect adaptation. It is indisputable that the housing need exists, he said.

“I think it’s a great project,” Tobias said.

For Archdiocesan Housing Inc., the Roaring Fork Valley seems cursed. The nonprofit organization has sought a site in the upper or middle valley for a project since 2002. The estate of Aspen icons Fritz and Fabi Benedict provided a $2 million gift to the AHI in the late 1990s for a housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Benedicts left lucrative land outside of Aspen to the archdiocese and other nonprofits. There was a stipulation that the land or proceeds from the sale had to be used for housing.

AHI has explored six sites for housing projects in the Basalt area but has been stymied by neighborhood opposition or technical difficulties. (AHI constructed and operates low-income housing projects in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs that weren’t associated with the Benedict contribution.)

Justin Raddatz, vice president of development for AHI, said via email he still hopes to pursue a housing project in the Roaring Fork Valley, possibly at Willits Bend.

“There is still an opportunity, which we are pursuing, to discuss modifications to our existing Willits Bend plan that may be more compatible with the interests of the neighbors and the county,” he said. “Whether on this site or another, we still commit to serving the valley and the legacy of Fritz and Fabi Benedict’s contribution with an affordable housing project in the valley. Right now, we are focusing on the opportunity in front of us.”