Small-town charm with 15,000 people?
December 14, 2005
The majority of Basaltines say it’s important to preserve the burg’s small-town character. It’s one of those mom-and-apple-pie-type issues that’s popular with everyone.But it might also be mission impossible.Growth projections by the town planning staff indicate Basalt’s population could soar to 15,000 people based on current zoning and land-use regulations in and immediately surrounding the town. That’s more than five times the current number of residents.The staff also concluded zoning and land-use policies will add between 2,000 and 2,400 residences to the existing 3,624 dwellings.Those projections looked at potential development in three areas: within the town itself, right outside its current boundaries in an area regarded appropriate for urban-style growth, and within a three-mile planning area from those current boundaries.There was no definitive time on the growth projection. Much of that will depend on market forces.Some of that development has been or will be approved by Eagle and Pitkin counties, where the Town Council doesn’t have any input. But a significant amount – nearly 700 dwellings – either has already been approved or is planned infill within Basalt.The growth analysis astonished many people in a crowd of about 40 who attended a workshop in Basalt this week on defining and retaining small-town character.”I want to say ‘Whoa, Nellie,'” said Nancy Kelly. “Are we really going to go this direction?”Preserving Basalt’s small-town charm appears to be moot if those growth projections come true, Kelly said.Real estate agent Mark Kwiecienski said the projected level of growth would be good for business but bad for the Basalt he now knows and loves. Gridlock is one of the consequences he wants to avoid.Kwiecienski said Basalt has become a more popular site for real estate shoppers once the expansion of Highway 82 to Buttermilk was completed. “The pressure that has just come on the market is huge,” he said.He said it is essential for the town government to take the growth projections seriously and plan for the future, or it will be overwhelmed in three years or so.But architect Ted Guy discounted the projections as overly aggressive. “I don’t see that we’re going to see 1,000 units [in Basalt] in five years,” he said.Planning consultant Tim Malloy, who is helping update the town’s land-use master plan, or blueprint for growth, noted projections in the 1999 master plan proved accurate.Regardless of if and when the numbers play out, it’s obvious that small-town character is on the minds of many Basaltines. A town survey showed that 72 percent feel small-town character is “important.”When the town dug further into those feelings in a second survey, it found that growth alone wouldn’t determine if Basalt remains a small town. People said character can also be defined by community fairs, events and festivals; banning chains and franchises; and making town pedestrian-friendly.It was also clear from audience comments that preserving small-town character isn’t as simple as restricting growth. Councilman Glenn Rappaport said he feels it is important to create jobs in town so people don’t have to commute for suitable work. Right now Basalt is a bedroom community. About 85 percent of people commute to jobs outside town.Rappaport also said the town has to find ways to help make housing more affordable. Restrictive policies prevent construction of housing affordable to anyone but the wealthy.”I wish we would move past trying to be Aspen. We’re not Aspen,” Rappaport said.Jeff Orsulak warned that Basalt would have trouble preserving its character if it loses people of “The Lost Generation.” People between ages 25 and 35 are leaving Basalt and other areas of the valley, he said, because their prospects of buying a single-family home are grim, even if they are professionals with good jobs. Orsulak, a project manager with a local architectural firm and an aspiring architect, said he sometimes wonders about his ability to stay in Basalt.”You talk about the small-town character, you’re going to lose the people that live here,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org