John Colson: Should we just let the bulldozers roll? | AspenTimes.com

John Colson: Should we just let the bulldozers roll?

John Colson
Hit & Run

Well, I don't know about you, but I certainly was intrigued when the news broke recently about a plan to build as many as 400 small homes on a 41-acre parcel of land near the intersection of Catherine Store Road (Garfield County Road 100) and Highway 82 near Carbondale.

The project is proposed by a Miami-based company called Gatorcap LLC and headed by a man named Ken Arnold, according to news stories on the subject.

Though Arnold claims the company is "experienced" in development in both Florida and Colorado, a quick perusal of the internet turned up only the Miami address, for a firm that is only 7 years old.

I guess it could simply be that Arnold and his team are looking for profit-making opportunities at higher elevations, since Miami and much of the rest of Florida may soon be drowned by rising seas thanks to global warming.

But that's fodder for another day.

The project, which Arnold said is geared toward selling homes at affordable prices to working-class people (a line we have heard before from developers, only to see the reality turn out to be far different), reportedly has a rough row to hoe even before it gets started. The land is zoned "rural," which means the underlying zoning would allow only one home for every 6 acres, or about six homes total.

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Even if it were upzoned to the highest density permitted in Garfield County, it still would only qualify for about 124 homes, according to news reports, which is far below the number Arnold is seeking.

But, not to be deterred, Gatorcap has applied to the county for a change in the zoning code that would permit the number of homes he wants to build, an application that will be considered at the county's planning and zoning commission on Dec. 13 in Glenwood Springs.

This is not the first big-bore residential development project to be proposed at the very edge of Carbondale over the four decades I have been here.

That honor goes, if my memory serves, to the Aspen Crystal River Estates (ACRE) and Te-Ke-Ki development plans, two different projects approved by Garfield County back in the 1960s for the area above White Hill, to the east of lands owned by the Nieslanik family and the Big 4 ranches of the Carbondale Corp. (CC).

The developers of these two boondoggles planned on an access road intersecting Catherine Store Road right near the bridge over the Roaring Fork River (the old road bed can still be seen climbing up the hillside). But somehow their plans got crosswise with the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad that owned the old tracks that carried coal and iron ore from valley mines in those days (the right of way now is occupied by the Rio Grande Trail). The railroad firm refused to grant a permanent easement, and the projects died.

At least one of those projects, if I recall correctly, was linked to former Colorado State Sen. Terry Considine and others. The ACRE lands reportedly were acquired some years ago by a subsidiary of the Carbondale Corporation, and ACRE property has been targeted for takeover by the CC group. Not sure what the current status is, other than the apparent fact that the lands in question have been used by the CC ranchers for their cattle operations for nearly 30 years.

Another of the area's big but never developed proposals was known as Crown Meadows, and its principals wanted to build roughly 1,000 homes in a meadow to the south of the ACRE/Te-Ke-Ki lands, again in the neighborhood of the Big 4 ranches.

But even Garfield County, a notoriously development-friendly body, couldn't go along with plopping essentially a brand new town on the hills above a long-established community, and the project was never approved.

Since then, of course, Carbondale has been ringed by other developments, including River Valley Ranch, Aspen Glen and several smaller projects along the Crystal and Roaring Fork river valleys. Maybe Arnold believes this string of precedents gives his proposal a better chance of approval.

But already, neighbors of the Gatorcap project site have raised objections over the potential for massive traffic impacts to the midvalley region if 400 homes were suddenly to appear, among other potential disagreements.

I find myself torn by this proposal, to say the least.

On the one hand, I've long been an advocate for more affordable housing at locations stretching from Aspen to Rifle, and still am in a general way.

But 400 homes packed onto a postage stamp of ground right along Highway 82? That's a mighty big serving of urban sprawl, and maybe more than I can swallow.

I have no idea if Arnold and his crew might be shooting for the moon but willing to be satisfied by reaching the clouds, in a manner of speaking — developers have a long history of asking for more than they need right out of the starting gate, and then negotiating for something more acceptable to neighbors and local governments.

All I know for sure is that, if this project goes forward, it will be simply one more step in urbanizing the Highway 82 corridor, at least as far as the Eagle County line and perhaps all the way to the Pitkin County boundary.

If this is what we want — a dense pocket of humanity occupying land that not too long ago was relatively remote and unpopulated — then perhaps we should lie down and let the bulldozers roll.

Somehow, though, I don't see that happening very easily.

Email at jbcolson51@gmail.com.