Roaring Fork planning commission slams Eagle County land use review process
August 4, 2017
Eagle County's land use review process was handed a scathing indictment Thursday by Roaring Fork Valley residents who know it best.
Members of the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission told the county commissioners in a joint meeting that the Eagle County planning staff advocates for developers rather than the public, that the staff doesn't properly convey the planning commission's positions, that the commissioners ignore the planning commission's advice and that the master plan for the Basalt-El Jebel area needs adjustments.
The strongest part of the indictment came from planning commission member Charles Spickert.
"There were instances where the staff were proponents of the plan," he said.
As an example, Spickert said a county planner expressed regret to him after the planning commission voted to recommend denial of a high visibility project. The planner said the review was going to be a "capstone" of his career. Spickert didn't name the application because the county commissioners didn't want specific projects discussed.
County commissioner Jill Ryan suggested that the situation has changed with the planning office because of widespread turnover. Damian Peduto was recently hired as the new planning director and several new planners are in place.
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"Will you let Damian know if you ever feel that way," she said of the advocacy for developers.
It was a tough day for the county commissioners. After a two-hour discussion with the planning commission, they went on to a tense 90-minute pow-wow with the Basalt Town Council (see related story on A1).
Planning commission member Cathy Markle said the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission members have historically felt ignored by the county commissioners and thus felt "devalued."
"That's why there was a problem getting anybody to (serve)," she said.
The planning commission is a volunteer board that advises the county commissioners on land use matters in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County. The buck stops with the county commissioners, who are elected and have final say on applications.
The wheels most recently came off the relationship between the county commissioners and the planning commission during the review of the controversial Tree Farm project in El Jebel. The planning commission voted unanimously to recommend denial. The county commissioners voted 2-1 this summer to approve the 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space.
Planning commission chairwoman Temple Glassier said it is frustrating when the boards disagree because she is uncertain the planning board's view is properly passed on.
"I'm not sure staff really gets our message," said planning commission member Raul Gawrys.
Markle said a planning staff report to the county commissioners inaccurately conveyed comments she made during review of a project.
"I was misquoted," she said, noting there was no remedy in Eagle County's existing process for her to correct the comment.
Markle tried to speak at a county commissioner hearing on the Tree Farm development earlier this year. She said at the time she just wanted to clarify comments attributed to her, but she wasn't allowed to speak because she was a member of the planning commission.
Ryan said she felt the county commissioners tried to work with the developer to get the planning commission's concerns addressed. Ryan said it also puts the commissioners in a tough spot when the planning commission is at odds with the "professional staff" of the county.
Gawrys and planning commission member Judith Kula said there seems to be an effort by the planning staff to water down the commission's concerns about a project.
"A unanimous vote doesn't show us in disarray," Kula said.
Appearances matter, Kula added, and residents of the Roaring Fork Valley feel disenfranchised when the county commissioners overrule the local planning commission.
"That was all kind of swept away with the wind," she said.
The three county commissioners — Ryan, Jeanne McQueeney and Kathy Chandler-Henry — repeatedly assured the planning commission members they appreciate their efforts and that they do weigh their advice in their decisions. They also outlined how they believe the planning commission's concerns will be addressed, first with the hiring of new staff.
The boards also agreed that the planning commission should write or approve a report that explains their reasoning for a vote on a project when the review moves to the county commission. The planning commission also will dive into a reassessment this fall of the Mid Valley Master Plan, a guiding document for development in the Roaring Fork portion of Eagle County. Eagle County also has hired a consulting firm to advise it on how to rewrite its land-use code.