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Willits one step closer to lawsuit

The Willits project in Basalt has moved one step backward in the town government’s review process and one step closer to litigation.

The Town Council sent the project back for review by the planning commission. The board ruled that substantial changes have been made to the commercial core of the proposal so it must return for another look by the planning advisers.

“We were really surprised by that,” said Herb Klein, the attorney for Willits developers Michael Lipkin, Paul Adams and Clay Crossland.

“We totally disagree with the premise,” continued Klein. “It hasn’t changed in any significant way and, in many ways, not at all.”

The town has already approved 423 residences at Willits, a project located just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market. The dispute is over a proposal for a 456,000-square-foot commercial core.

The planning commission granted the last of three approvals for Willits in December 1998. But the review hit a snag when it went before the council the following summer. The majority of council members have expressed concerns about the project as proposed.

Relations between the developers and council majority have become so strained that the developers now bring their own court reporter to meetings to record all proceedings.

The Town Council hired an outside legal expert to assist with the review.

After that attorney rendered his opinion, the council decided to send the project back to the planning commission. Councilman Chris Lane said it was a necessary administrative step. If the project was approved, someone could have challenged the process and claimed the altered application should have gone back before the planning commission, according to Lane.

But Klein questioned that reasoning. Few, if any, people have been showing up at the Willits review meetings, he noted. He said he seriously doubted the town faced a legitimate threat from anyone who would file a lawsuit if the project was approved.

The only legitimate threat of litigation, he said, is from the developers. Klein said he is concerned that the board’s maneuver is an attempt “to rewrite the record” of the review. The board may be preparing to deny the project or approve it with conditions that the developers find unacceptable, he said.

“The way it’s looking, court’s inevitable,” said Klein. “If it looks like we’re getting mired down in the planning commission, we’ll have to file suit.”

If the review is handled expeditiously by the planning commission and Town Council, litigation could be avoided. But even then, the differences of opinion on key issues may be too great, according to Klein.

Affordable housing is one of those issues. The Town Council claims Willits must comply with an ordinance requiring developers to provide housing for some of the employees their project generates. The Willits developers contend that ordinance doesn’t apply.

The developers have proposed an alternative for affordable housing – one which the council finds unacceptable.

Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt, who made the motion to send the project back to the planning commission, said the board won’t bend on the housing dispute.

“We’re convinced Ordinance Six [on affordable housing] does apply. They’re wrong on this one,” she said.

“That’s probably one for the judge,” replied Klein.

Another glaring issue is the square footage. The council’s motion to send the project back for review specifies that the planning commission should consider the effects the project would have on traffic and on the economics of downtown Basalt businesses.

Klein said he doesn’t believe studies will show a reduction in the project is warranted. Councilman Lane said he feels a reduction is necessary.

“I’ve always felt this project is too large – too much development too fast for Basalt,” Lane said.

Councilwoman Whitsitt said the board is striving for a better project, which may or may not mean a smaller one. That’s yet to be determined, she said.

“This is an effort by the board to give the applicant an answer, something the community can live with and that’s fair, legal and equitable,” she said. “Whenever you’re giving and taking, nobody is going to get everything they want.”

The council voted 6-1 to send the Willits project back to the planning commission. Councilman Leroy Duroux dissented, according to minutes supplied by the town clerk.

The motion directed the planning commission to complete its review by June 6. The council’s goal is to issue a written decision by July 25.


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