Aspen Times Editorial: Support Basalt river park, library and Eagle County’s affordable housing initiative

Basalt voters are being asked in this election whether to buy the remaining private land at the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park.

Question 2F is a complicated, controversial issue with loads of history but the choice can be condensed down to vision.

Basalt residents who believe a legacy park along the Roaring Fork River would establish a unique and lasting identity for the town should vote to purchase the 2.3 acres from the Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. The ballot language calls for 1.3 acres of the land to be added to land the town already owns along the river. That additional 1.3 acres would enlarge the park and make it more accessible. The remaining 1 acre closest to the Rocky Mountain Institute building would be designated for commercial or “public purpose” development.

Basalt residents who believe the Community Development Corp. property along Two Rivers Road is better suited for broader development to revitalize downtown should vote against the measure.

We urge a “yes” vote. The ballot question authorizes the town to spend as much as $3.1 million for the purchase, but since the language was finalized, the town signed a contract to buy the 2.3 acres for $2.9 million. That’s a smart community investment.

The icing on the cake is that the open space programs of Eagle and Pitkin counties have conceptually agreed to provide $400,000 each, a total of $800,000, toward the purchase. The open space advisory boards and county commissioners of both counties must formally approve the expenditures.

A legacy park would enhance the quality of life for Basalt residents and be a draw for tourists, just as Salida has evolved into an inviting and intriguing destination, in large part because of its awesome downtown park along the Arkansas River.

Basalt can have its cake and eat it, too. The 1 acre reserved for development could be an attractive location for uses that the council and community would negotiate with a developer.

The town’s financial consultant made a convincing case some months back that Basalt can absorb this purchase and development of the park within its bonding capacity without hamstringing the community. Existing bonds are currently scheduled to be paid off in 2020. The property tax used to pay them off would be extended for another six years if questions 2F and 2G are approved. The property tax needed to pay for a legacy park purchase and development would expire in 2026.

Question 2G is a companion piece of the vision proposed in 2F. Basalt is seeking permission to issue $4.12 million in bonds for the park improvements. The bonds wouldn’t be issued if 2F fails. Complete the whole deal and vote “yes” on 2G.

Approving 2F allows Basalt to control the destiny of its signature property. Approving 2G ensures the legacy park is built quicker.

On other ballot issues in Basalt, Question 2H seeks approval to use as much as 20 percent of the revenue from an existing 1 percent sales tax dedicated to open space, parks and trails for maintenance. That’s sound planning. We recommend a “yes” vote on 2H.

Question 2I gives Basalt the ability to pursue new and improved options on bandwidth services. Numerous other municipalities and counties in Colorado have gone this route. Basalt should, too.

In a separate measure than those posed by the town government, Question 4A by the Basalt Regional Library District seeks an additional $350,000 in property taxes annually for operations. The funding would sunset after seven years.

Library district officials have made a convincing case that the funds are needed to maintain existing services and operations. The library administration and board run a tight ship. The library district says its expenses have increased only 5.6 percent between 2010 and 2016. However, the district lost $3 million in revenue from 2011 to 2016 because of lower property valuation in the district. The library district has been dipping into reserves in recent years to maintain hours and programs at existing levels.

The library has become a critical asset to Basalt. The community should protect its asset by providing the money needed to maintain the operations.

Other ballot issues affecting Eagle County residents in the El Jebel and Basalt area are 1A and 1B.

Question 1A relates to workforce housing. Eagle County is facing a significant housing shortage and estimates that 4,466 units are currently needed. By 2025, the estimate soars to 11,960 units. Ballot issue 1A asks for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to raise money for an affordable-housing program that would include down payment assistance for loans, land purchases for future affordable-housing units and other partnerships and programs that would provide affordable housing.

Roughly 18 to 20 percent of Eagle County’s population lives in the Roaring Fork Valley. An intergovernmental agreement would ensure that the representative portion of the money collected in the valley would remain here, said Chris Romer of the Vail Valley Partnership, which is backing the initiative.

While The Aspen Times doesn’t like the fact that specific projects aren’t outlined in this initiative, we think the organizers have the right ideas for the money raised. New construction of deed-restricted housing for both owners and renters, the purchasing of land for future development and of deed restrictions for existing properties, down payment assistance loans, incentives for developers and other private-public partnerships are the right approach to meeting the county’s housing needs. There’s no silver bullet approach, but a combination of smart growth and innovative options are what the county needs in order to tackle this problem. Given that Eagle County faces much of the same affordable housing needs as Pitkin County and has never had a funding mechanism in place to run such a program, we think it’s time for voters to support an initiative that could make an important dent in the housing crisis.

Question 1B would extend a property tax for the open space program. If approved, the sunset provision would be extended from 2025 to 2040.

Eagle County has proven that it is willing to spend funds on this side of the hill, where 20 percent of the population lives. It has helped with several purchases of land or easements in the Emma area. That helps preserve rapidly disappearing agricultural land. Vote “yes” on Eagle County ballot question 1B.

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.