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The battle over Burlingame

Janet Urquhart

Four years ago, Aspen voters endorsed what would be the city’s largest, if not most controversial, affordable housing project.Burlingame Village garnered backing from nearly 60 percent of the voters who went to the polls on Aug. 8, 2000, but the hotly debated project was far from a done deal. It still isn’t.Some $2 million in infrastructure is already under construction to serve what will essentially be a new subdivision on the outskirts of town, and five design teams recently submitted conceptual plans for the project. But as Burlingame’s momentum mounts, so does its opposition.

The housing project could well face another challenge at the ballot box even as the city begins spending serious dollars on its development, but that comes as no surprise to longtime observers and players in the fight. After the votes were counted in August 2000, a heated, election-night exchange between then-Mayor Rachel Richards and Burlingame opponent Dwight Shellman all but promised the fight over Burlingame was not finished.”They don’t respect the outcome of the vote,” Richards fumed after her post-election confrontation with Shellman on the local cable TV channel. “They’re still going to try to kill this project.”Forging ahead, slowlyIn the years since the first Burlingame vote, the makeup of the City Council has shifted. Helen Klanderud succeeded Richards as mayor, promising to honor the vote on Burlingame though she sided with the project’s opposition during the campaign. She later changed her mind and voted against proceeding with the project, though a 3-2 majority, including Richards as a council member, has kept the project alive.

The shift in the council’s makeup was followed by the hiring of consultants to analyze the city’s options for additional worker housing and assess its overall need for more units. Burlingame emerged as a cost-effective project, given its scale, to provide significant additional housing, but the study delayed any forward movement on the project for a year.The city has also renegotiated its pre-annexation agreement with the Zoline family, which owns the adjacent Bar/X Ranch, to increase the potential housing at Burlingame from 225 units to 330 homes. The Zolines get to build up to 12 luxury homes, a cabin and maintain a ranch compound on their property, along with an undefined cultural/educational facility.It was approval of the pre-annexation agreement by voters four years ago that gave the project its green light in the public’s eye.But the deal with the Zolines is a sore spot for opponents who contend a swath of sagebrush north of the Maroon Creek Club is the wrong spot for such a large residential development. It’s also the focus of a pair of citizen initiatives that could, in effect, send the project back to the voters.

Shellman and Joe Edwards, both former Pitkin County commissioners, have drafted a pair of ordinances that Burlingame foes began circulating this week.One of the ordinances would force the city to withdraw from the pre-annexation agreement it has struck with the Zolines and prevent the city from entering into such agreements in the future.The other would prohibit the city from spending money on capital improvements for a housing project and granting annexation or land-use approvals for the housing until the costs of the project have been determined and approved by voters.”It’s really a good-government issue that addresses the abuses that happened here, where the public voted for affordable housing without knowing what the costs will be,” Shellman said.

The subsidy for the housing project – the sum borne by tax-generated funds after it is built and sold to qualified workers – could run into the millions, Burlingame detractors contend.City staffers think the project could break even, depending on what the design teams that are competing for a design/build contract come up with in their plans for Burlingame. The council is slated to pick a conceptual plan from among the contenders next month.The teams were provided with a sample pro forma for the first phase of roughly 110 lots/units that would break even, according to Michelle Bonfils, city project manager. That financial outline projected $17 million in construction costs – sort of a loan from the city’s housing fund that would be repaid through the sale of the housing and lots.”The goal is for the project to break even,” Bonfils said.

Another voteIf Burlingame opponents collect sufficient signatures on the two initiative petitions, the ordinances they propose could force an election regarding the project sometime next year. The timing of such an election may pose an interesting dilemma – the city could be poised to spend money on final design plans or actual construction before it knows the outcome of the vote.The project’s foes have amassed some $60,000 in pledges and are aiming for $150,000 either to launch an election campaign or battle the city in court, or both. Shellman anticipates the city will challenge the petitions as unsuitable for the initiative process.Asked what happens if voters endorse either of the proposed ordinances after construction has begun, he said: “I have no idea.”

“How do you close the barn door after the horse has gotten out?” mused Mayor Klanderud.The work that has been done thus far could probably be undone, but the impact of cutting a road/utility corridor across Deer Hill has elicited gasps in the community.”If you didn’t like the road, you’re going to hate the village,” predicted Stephanie Soldner Sullivan, whose father, noted ceramic artist Paul Soldner, owns a home/studio near the proposed housing. He is negotiating to sell the property to Anderson Ranch Arts Center.The impact of the road, council members claim, was aggravated by its routing across Deer Hill at the behest of the Soldners, Zolines and the neighboring Maroon Creek Club. The city wanted to loop the road to the east of the Soldner property, not the west.

The infrastructure work was also at the center of a flap over whether the city did or did not obtain all the necessary permits for the construction. It appears the city lacked one necessary county permit to store materials, which was quickly rectified by moving the materials onto city land. One city permit was applied for after the fact, when the Community Development Department indicated it might be necessary, according to Ed Sadler, assistant city manager.”If this was the private sector, this would have been red-tagged,” charged Councilman Terry Paulson, an ardent opponent of Burlingame. “We need to follow the rules like everybody else.” (A red tag halts construction.)Installation of the infrastructure has caused problems, Klanderud conceded. “I think perhaps we moved too quickly here,” she told the council.”What’s too fast? Six years? Four years?” countered Councilman Tim Semrau, urging the council to push forward with a project the voters blessed in 2000.

Since then, demand for worker housing has continued unabated, Richards contends. A recent lottery for a three-bedroom home in the affordable-housing program attracted 72 interested buyers, she noted.”If anything, the repeated delays on Burlingame have already cost this community a healthy chunk of this community’s young couples and families,” Richards said. Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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