Aspen Times Editorial: Midvalley P&Z should deny Tree Farm project

Midvalley conversation has been dominated in recent months by the resurrection of the Tree Farm, an El Jebel-area development project that pops up every few years in a larger form.

The latest iteration seeks approval for as many as 400 residences and 134,500 square feet of commercial space. The planned-unit-development approval being sought by property owner Ace Lane and his Woody Ventures LLC would provide flexibility based on market conditions. Lane could shift more square footage into the commercial sector if so desired.

There are numerous problems with this project. First and foremost, the governmental jurisdictions in the valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs, need to start serious discussions about carrying capacity. How much more growth can be absorbed?

In El Jebel, we believe the Tree Farm, as proposed, would swamp Highway 82 with more traffic at a time when delays and congestion are already at a frustrating level. In addition, a project of that size would dump the demand for services onto the Basalt Police Department, even though the project is in unincorporated Eagle County, and it would overwhelm the school district.

Lane received the first of two critical approvals for the project back in 2009. Eagle County granted sketch-plan approval by a 2-1 vote by the county commissioners. The project went dormant during the recession, but Lane brought it out of mothballs in 2014 and is now seeking second-ground approval. However, during the layoff, Lane supersized the plan. It went from 319 to 400 residences and from 96,375 square feet of commercial space to 134,500 square feet. In addition, Lane reduced the amount of affordable housing and wants to pay cash rather than provide parking for the bus stop.

We are troubled by the way the Eagle County staff handled the application. The Planning Department determined Lane’s changes weren’t major enough to warrant going back to square one in the review process. That decision defies logic. Lane is attempting a classic bait-and-switch, and the planning staff is allowing it.

Second, the housing staff recommended Lane should get special credit for affordable housing because he will provide rental apartments that will be built in the first phase of construction. There are two problems with that reasoning: First, the units will go for $1,300 per month for a one-bedroom, under today’s guidelines. That hardly qualifies as “affordable” housing. And second, it means Lane only has to provide 46 affordable-housing units. That won’t come close to offsetting the number of employees his project would generate, so the valley’s affordable-housing crisis would just get worse.

The Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission should send a strong message when it potentially makes an advisory vote Oct. 22. It should tell the Eagle County commissioners that Lane’s project won’t work in the Roaring Fork Valley.

We would like to see Lane come back to the table with a project that provides truly affordable housing that capitalizes on a transit-oriented site. The commercial component should be drastically reduced, if not killed, so that midvalley commercial areas don’t cannibalize one another and leave empty shells in some locations.

The Aspen Times Editorial Board consists of Publisher Samantha Johnston, Editor Lauren Glendenning, Managing Editor Rick Carroll and community members Bob Braudis and Kathryn Koch.