Saddle Sore: There’s something rotten in Willits | AspenTimes.com

Saddle Sore: There’s something rotten in Willits

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Strange how it happens, this thing called change. Not quite like Rip Van Winkle but similar in some ways, I found myself walking the old neighborhood of Willits, giving my dog a sniff and me an eyeshot of what's new around town.

Holed up in Woody Creek the past year and a half, I haven't managed to visit the midvalley area much, but what with a remodel job taking over the old Woody Creek homestead, I've been struggling on at my place across the road from Willits. It's an eye-opener, I can tell you that.

Let me get this straight: Mariner Real Estate Development, the speculator of Willits, says it needs approval for 91,000 square feet more to make its struggling project viable, but still will come up $12 million short, after all, unless Basalt is willing to share its sales tax revenue with Mariner? Man, with that sorry line they could qualify as Aspen developers.

Reminds me of the two old guys, graduates of fine business colleges somewhere, who would drive to Florida once a month with a couple of empty trucks, fill them up with seasonal varieties of citrus and bring the bounty back to Colorado for sale. After about six months, they determined through the use of a highly technical spreadsheet that they were losing $100 per truck, per trip. Through further tweaking of their business plan and pro forma projections, it became obvious that, at least to them, the solution was to buy more trucks. After going broke in the trucking business, they probably ended up in real estate development.

The Basalt Town Council, on the advice of town planners, acceded to Mariner's outrageous request at first reading, which makes one wonder where the take starts and ends. I mean, come on, it was obvious that Basalt and its planners would have loved nothing better than to personally turn down the Ace Lane project across Highway 82, but much to Basalt's chagrin, Eagle County did it on its own. After playing that card, why are the Basalt planners and council now so eager to approve Mariner's request without so much as a whimper of disapproval?

Maybe a history lesson is appropriate here. Originally, Willits was touted as El Jebel Junction (thank you, Scott Condon) and was denied by Eagle County. Basalt, running in fear of sales tax losses from the imminent departure of City Market from Basalt proper to El Jebel, decided on a gun-barrel approach to saving its collective butt from financial hardship, and appropriated a more or less straight shot from Basalt to El Jebel, enlarging Basalt's city limits in a nonsensical fashion. In the process, it annexed the Willits area, just so the town of Basalt could approve the development and enlarge its coffers. The Iron Rule: Money Talks. And, in an interesting turn, El Jebel Junction became Sopris Meadows before it was finally renamed Willits. Bramblet Willits and his son Lee must be turning over in their graves.

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If the Basalt Town Council remembers, Aspen voters recently had to smack their tone-deaf council hard with a referendum to get its attention — giving away gifts to developers just so their projects pencil out is not popular with the voters, not anywhere in this valley.

By the way, what happened to the nice little park that used to be in Willits across from Smoke and El Korita? Where it went, no one knows. It was a small, friendly common, a real credit to the planning of Willits and an area where horses could occasionally be seen grazing, waiting for their riders to finish an after-ride cocktail before heading home. Kids played there, enjoying a bit of freedom while their parents paid the restaurant bill. In the summer, live music enhanced the area on Wednesday nights, and depending on the band, the place might fill up with eager listeners, tapping their feet and swinging their partners around on the soft, green grass.

Oops. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said some wise old sage many years ago, an axiom that apparently didn't visit either the Basalt or Willits planning offices. That cute little park has now been ravaged by the intrusion of man — on one side there appears to be a fountain or some such thing, which takes up about a quarter of what was open land — another quarter of the land is taken up by something akin to a band stand. If a band actually draws a crowd, it'll have to spill over into the street because there isn't enough room left in that park for much of a gathering.

And don't get me started on the increase in traffic during my absence — it's horrendous. My dog and I remember when we could cross Willits Lane without need of a traffic cop. We ain't stayin' long.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.

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