Snowmass Chapel plans descend into confusion
A sign of how contentious the plans are for the new Snowmass Chapel was evident when an ordinance concerning the proposed building was brought up at Monday night’s Town Council meeting.Nearly 20 people filed into what had been a sparsely attended council session. The gathering quickly grew heated. And confusing.At the end of the five-hour meeting, the council, with Councilman Arnie Mordkin abstaining, reversed itself from a decision it made two weeks ago on the nonbinding ordinance. The measure was merely a preliminary indication of how the council feels about the height, mass and scale of the proposed chapel.At the meeting last month, the council voted 4-1 on first reading that it could live with the project’s volume requirements, which exceed town code and would need variances to be approved. Councilman John Wilkinson was the dissenting vote.Last night, on second reading, Councilwoman Sally Sparhawk joined Wilkinson in voting against the ordinance. Councilman Bill Boineau and Mayor Doug Mercatoris voted for it. The tie meant the ordinance was rejected.Earlier parts of the meeting were wracked by confusion. It began with Mordkin’s motion to continue the hearing. He said council members don’t know how they want to vote because they don’t know what citizens are thinking.So he proposed that the town hold a nonbinding election through the mail to get an idea of how residents feel. He later said the process of obtaining input from the electorate should be called a nonbinding “sense of community.””The council really wants to know what the public thinks,” he said.Mordkin suggested that registered voters could receive a letter explaining the issue, a self-addressed return envelope and the ballot asking about the building’s planned size. Residents would have two weeks to return the ballots, he proposed.Sparhawk tried to second the motion, but was cut off by Mercatoris, who addressed technical aspects of such a move.”Why don’t we just hold an election?” wondered Boineau. “If we’re going to do it, let’s just do it.”Mordkin tried to steer away from talk of an election and said his idea would be to have more of a survey of the townsfolk.That drew the scrutiny of Town Manager Mike Segrest and John Dresser, the town’s lawyer.Segrest said that town staff could not promise to meet Mordkin’s request to have the survey ready by the council’s next meeting on Sept. 19. Reminding the council that land-use decisions involve a quasi-judicial process, he said the town would be traveling down a “slippery slope” if they proceeded with Mordkin’s plan.That quasi-judicial process cannot just be turned into a “popularity contest,” Segrest said. Citizens will not have enough time to digest the issue and vote in a responsible manner, he added.”I professionally and personally question the information you’ll get back,” he said.At issue is the new chapel’s size. Neighbors and other opponents say the structure is simply too big for Snowmass Village. Chapel backers contend the building would be a world-class amenity for the town and therefore deserves the variances.Audience member Bob Purvis, a former councilman, said he wasn’t sure about the ordinance the council was considering tabling.”I’ve not heard of a nonbinding ordinance. What is it?” he asked.Mercatoris responded that the vote was a way of “giving comfort” to whichever side the council leaned toward.”It gives people comfort, but it’s not binding?” Purvis said. “I find that extraordinary.”Brian Olson of Snowmass Village told the council it was critical that a poll or ballot come from the town and that it was imperative to get the height, mass and scale issues before the public.Chaplain Edgell Pyles of the Snowmass Chapel said backers of the new building did not intend to anger residents.”You can choke us down by continuing this,” he said. “The longer you postpone this, the more momentum we lose.”He also said the council’s indecision was hurting the chapel’s ability to raise funds for the structure. Supporters, who have spent more than $700,000 during the application process, still need to raise $5 million to get the new chapel built, he said.Land planner Doug Dotson, representing the Snowmass Chapel board, said the issue was about the town’s long-term sustainability, which he said will be aided by the new chapel. That is just as important as the structure’s height, mass and scale, Dotson said.”This is a one-of-a-kind building,” he said. “This facility is really going to help the community’s sustainability over the long-term.”The chapel plans will be discussed again on Sept. 19.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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