Guest Column: The public vs. private dilemma in Basalt over the Pan and Fork
A joint venture between the town of Basalt and the nonprofit Roaring Fork Community Development Corp., an option extended by the Community Development Corp. to developer Lowe Enterprises, without a bid process, on an extremely valuable yet-to-be-zoned riverfront parcel in the center of Basalt has turned a community-oriented vision into a more privatized one, and there is a rush on to get Basalt to commit to privatized approvals. The mayor and many people say the best way out is for the town to buy the land and to make sure the priority is what is best for the public. The Community Development Corp. is owed about $2.7 million, which is a paltry sum considering the importance to Basalt’s future. As more conflicts of interest surface, I now agree with the mayor. An overwhelming majority supported limited public and commercial-oriented development to create the most spectacular riverfront park in the state. That is the picture that was painted that enticed voters to approve a bond to clear the trailers from the site. A privatized vision never would have gained voter support.
In April, Lowe Enterprises audaciously made a proposal for 150,000 square feet of free-market townhomes and four-story hotel developments. The parcel is zoned for a mobile home park, so any upzoning is at the discretion of Basalt. At a June 16 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, it was stated by town planners that “the town wants to have a pre-development agreement in place with Lowe Enterprises by the end of the year, so the process has to move along to make that happen.” Why now is the process geared so heavily toward the satisfaction of this one developer rather than the public good?
Last week, the council passed Resolution 34 with a troubling provision that was rushed and not fully thought-out and surprised many. It reads that the Town Council supports the direction of the Planning and Zoning Commission members and instructs it to work on the zoning changes necessary to implement their recommendations for 75,000 square feet of development on the northern half of the Community Development Corp. parcel. A step that needs to be completed prior to suggesting any amount of development would be to fully understand and weigh public benefits in addition to understanding the projected developer profits or required subsidies of each option, including all those that are more nonprofit and open-park oriented that have been largely ignored since Lowe entered the picture in November. That study is not scheduled to be out for two months. What then should be done is to put all the chosen options out to bid.
The council is being pressured by developer interests to resolve this and so had suggested that the Planning and Zoning Commission consider 75,000 square feet as a maximum, largely as it was just half of what the bloated proposal was. The problem is that the bloated proposal was just that, not a verified amount that best serves the community. Resolution 34 should be reconsidered and withdrawn until it is decided what is the best mix for the property.
Other related events:
1) It is nearly impossible for any person or company, with significant profits on the line and a desire to satisfy a client, to be a neutral party, yet that is what the town has asked of Cottle Carr Yaw Architects. The firm had begun working with Lowe Enterprises in November. Cottle Carr Yaw architect Chris Touchette acted as head of the Basalt Planning Commission until as late as May 19. After the Lowe proposal met overwhelming opposition in April, the town hired Cottle Carr Yaw to develop options for the town. Touchette then recused himself for a six-week period so that he could “represent” the town. Although the council previously did suggest more open space, from the original bloated proposal, the choices the council and the Planning and Zoning Commission are considering are limited to those that would accomplish the privatization vision.
2) If the council upzones the northern 50 percent of the Community Development Corp. parcel with 75,000 square feet of development rights without first weighing public benefit and understanding the financial implications of all development or non-development options, the town will have given away unnecessary public value and created an unwarranted bonanza of wealth for the option holder, which could haunt Basalt in the future. The developer could then flip its contract or bully or sue if Basalt does not grant the full 75,000 square feet of building rights to the developer’s liking. (That is basically what happened in concept with the Aspen Art Museum fiasco.)
Slow down Basalt to get it right. Buying the land would be best. At the least, restructure things with the Community Development Corp. to open up the process to allow multiple developers to bid on parts. That will give Basalt the best outcome.
Mark Kwiecienski is an Aspen Realtor who lives in Basalt. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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