Willits developers preparing for courtroom battle with Basalt
Yet another sign that events in Basalt are suddenly resembling those in Aspen – developers felt it necessary Tuesday night to bring a court stenographer to a Town Council hearing.
It was the latest hint that differences between the developers of the massive Willits project and town officials might not be resolved outside of a courtroom.
The attorney for the developers, Herb Klein of Aspen, hired a certified court reporter to attend the Town Council hearing on the project and create a separate record of the proceedings.
The town tapes its own audio recordings of the meetings, as required by law, and GrassRoots TV videotapes the meetings.
The developers’ move appeared to take town officials by surprise and prompted Mayor Rick Stevens to ask for an explanation.
Klein explained that the court reporter’s presence wasn’t meant to intimidate anyone. While he said he hoped there wouldn’t be a legal confrontation, he had to prepare for the possibility that the issue will end up before a judge.
Ongoing battle over project
The 90-minute hearing that followed did little to ease that suspicion. It followed the pattern of conflict that has developed between town officials and Willits’ three development partners – Michael Lipkin, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams.
In a nutshell, here’s the source of conflict: The council majority is different from the board that granted initial approvals and signed an annexation agreement for Willits, formerly known as Sopris Meadows, five years ago. The new board members are concerned about the possible consequences of the project and are maneuvering to get more concessions from the developers before they grant final approval.
But the developers contend that the council’s hands are tied by earlier commitments, specifically the annexation agreement and two approvals in earlier review steps.
Basalt annexed the Willits property to get to the highly coveted El Jebel City Market. To get to City Market and the revenues it generated, Basalt had to make concessions to the Willits property owners.
Only Mayor Stevens and Councilman Leroy Duroux remain from the board that made the annexation agreements.
More than 400 single-family homes and multifamily residences have already been approved on the site, just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market. The amount of commercial square footage and affordable housing remains under debate. The developers have preliminary approvals for 458,000 square feet of commercial space.
Majority digs for details
The newer board members are pressing the developers for more details and concessions on issues such as traffic. The developers’ traffic consultant, Phil Scott of the Denver firm of Lee, Scott and Cleary, contended in a presentation Tuesday that the current application will produce less traffic than the version studied extensively in 1995.
Scott concluded the developers, and public entities, were taking adequate steps to address the traffic generated by the project with steps such as stop lights at the intersection of Highway 82 and Willits Lane, and a second light a few hundred yards away at Willits Lane and Valley Road.
The council majority wasn’t convinced that the traffic study was complete or that the mitigation proposals are enough. Councilman Steve Solomon proposed a list of 12 questions that the town staff should try to answer on traffic impacts.
The board voted 4-2 to direct staff to work on that list of questions. Stevens and Duroux dissented.
Mayor wants real debate
Stevens explained Wednesday that he felt the board is bogging down in minutiae while avoiding talking about the pivotal issue on the project.
“It boils down to size,” Stevens said. “That’s the real debate.”
He wants the board to decide whether or not the size of the application is acceptable and bring the four-year debate to an end. The haggling over final approvals have been going on since June 1998.
But the project’s foes probably can’t just say “no.” They might not have the legal grounds to deny the project considering the town’s signing of the annexation agreement and granting of two approvals.
Their only strategic option might be to examine the application in greater detail and try to require greater mitigation steps by the developers.
In response to that strategy, the developers are preparing for the possibility of litigation.
“That’s the first time anyone’s had a court stenographer in my eight years [with Basalt government],” Stevens said.
It has occasionally occurred in bitter land-use debates in Aspen and Pitkin County.
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