Willits critic: Why the closed doors? | AspenTimes.com

Willits critic: Why the closed doors?

There have been only a few public critics of the massive Willits development project in Basalt, but one of them is attempting to get the public more involved before it is too late.

Longtime Basalt architect Ted Guy claims the town government has cut the public out of the process by negotiating an agreement with the developers behind closed doors.

“I’d like there to be an open and frank discussion about the changes there,” said Guy. “It’s a huge decision for the community and it shouldn’t be done in a back room.”

Guy is ticked because the Willits review disappeared from the public plate after the developers and town officials hit an impasse last summer. Rather than having the Town Council review issues in public meetings, Town Attorney Jody Edwards and other government staffers negotiated a settlement with developers Michael Lipkin, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams in closed-door sessions.

The Basalt Town Council voted 4-1 last month to direct its staff to prepare final approval documents for the project. Only two members of the public showed up to comment on a project that could reshape the midvalley. There was one supporter and one opponent.

In addition to a process that was somewhat difficult to follow, there’s also been a great deal of public apathy about Willits. The project is far enough from the core of Basalt that citizens of the old town area aren’t all that interested. And the residents most directly affected – those in unincorporated Eagle County – haven’t bothered attending Basalt’s meetings. Willits is located just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market, about four miles from Basalt’s core.

Guy believes much of the apathy stems from Basalt’s failure to keep citizens informed about how the project is evolving. The project grew 33 percent larger with virtually no public input, he noted.

When the negotiations went behind closed doors, the developers were proposing 456,000 square feet of retail, restaurant, office and free-market residential space.

When the negotiators emerged, the project’s size increased to about 600,000 square feet.

“This just makes a mockery of the public process,” Guy said.

Most elected officials and staff members have refused to discuss the town’s negotiating philosophy – particularly whether or not the 456,000 square feet proposed by the developers could be reduced. Only Councilwoman Anne Freedman has spoken out on the issue. She said some council members had concerns about Willit’s size but felt hamstrung by prior approvals.

With the inability to trim the project, Basalt’s negotiators sought “voluntary” exactions instead. They walked out of talks with land donated for a performing arts center, an undefined government building that could become a library, and a transit center.

Guy contended the government should do more to notify the public about Willits meetings and make sure citizens understand the implications of the project. The development of that much commercial space could create a level of competition that’s detrimental to downtown businesses, he said.

He also criticized the project for relocating important public facilities out of downtown and for failing to live up to open space requirements.

Willits, which already had approvals for 423 residential units, lost another 2.5 acres of open space in the town’s proposed settlement.

Guy has hired an Aspen attorney, Rick Neiley, to make sure his points are pressed with the town board.

Town Attorney Edwards said the town always intended to hold additional public hearings on the Willits final approval. Residents will have an opportunity to have their voices heard either at the Jan. 23 meeting or, if documents are ready then, in February.

“It ain’t over until it’s over,” said Edwards.

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