After Basalt RV park application denied, local couple say review process needs overhaul
January 11, 2018
A couple with long ties to Basalt said Wednesday they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy property and prepare a development application based on actions by the town government only to see their proposal rejected Tuesday night.
Brent and Roxanne Lough applied to build an upscale RV resort with 23 pads and 18 tiny-home cabins for short-term rental on nearly 9 acres of vacant land west of the Basalt Post Office on Emma Road. They were stunned by the 5-0 vote by the Town Council because they said they had been given positive assurances in earlier meetings — by the town staff, Planning and Zoning Commission and the council itself.
The Loughs cried foul over a process that required them to make large expenditures to advance to the first step of review without a guarantee of approval.
"Blood, guts and feathers, we're in it for about $300,000," Brent said.
Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said "development is a risky endeavor" but that he supports reviewing the town's requirements for submitting a basic application, which is called a sketch plan review.
It's a tough issue, he said, because the council needs some level of information to make an informed decision.
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"A tough reality of sketch plan is it requires an investment by the applicant," Mahoney said.
The Loughs said their expenditures included payments on an option to purchase the property from Roxanne's mother, Linda Jadwin. In addition, to get to the first-round of council review they spent money on traffic and wetlands studies, hiring an engineer and attorney, and paying a nonrefundable fee to the town for review.
Brent said he is a general contractor who hasn't been involved in the land-use application side of the development business. He systematically approached the process and made expenditures based on the feedback he was getting from the town. He invested in studies because he felt the town was reassuring the actions. If he had heard otherwise earlier in the process, he would have pulled the plug.
"One of the things that's important for people to know is I'm not the regular developer who's bullying his way through," Lough said. "I didn't show up with a bunch of hired guns."
He complimented Basalt assistant planning director James Lindt's work on his application. At the next level, Lough said he incorporated the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission's recommendations into his application. The planning commission voted 4-2 to recommend approval of the project.
Lough also noted he met with the council twice before Tuesday's meeting. He was confident enough to submit a formal application after meeting in April in an informal "preapplication" meeting with the board. No guarantees were made but Lough noted some council members were supportive of the RV park concept and tiny-home cabins. The council also determined in July that the property was eligible for annexation.
Mahoney said the council has taken informal pre-application conferences with applicants "off the table," a change he supported. No such meetings have taken place since he became town manager in June.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the preapplication meeting with the council should not have occurred and historically have not occurred. They should take place with the staff and technical advisers.
"There was no commitment at any level in the informal council pre-app meeting that would encourage or discourage submittal of an application," Whitsitt wrote in an email Wednesday. "The council only reviews applications that are complete per the code so that we have adequate information to discuss and misunderstandings are avoided."
When the council's formal review of the RV park began Tuesday, it was quickly rejected on three primary grounds — the application didn't comply with the master plan, it was too auto-oriented and three cabins encroached on wetlands.
In the town's 2007 land-use master plan, the Jadwin property is pegged for high- and medium-density residential development. The planning staff memo recommended that if the concept was desirable to the council, a master plan amendment allowing for a hotel/short-term rental use could be processed between the first and second rounds of review.
Whitsitt said at the Tuesday meeting that she was unwilling to let the application advance further if it didn't adhere to the master plan. The Loughs' application had to be treated like all others on compliance, she said.
Brent Lough said he was never told by the planning staff or during the planning commission hearings that non-compliance with the master plan was a potentially fatal flaw. Whitsitt said it should have been made clear to the applicant earlier in the process.
The council voted to deny the project within an hour of starting the review. Some members were apologetic that the Loughs had spent that much time and effort on the application.
"Embarrassment doesn't cover the costs we're out," Roxanne Lough said Wednesday.
Brent said he wasn't buying the council's "innocence" on the matter. They could have informed him in the two earlier meetings that the application wouldn't fly, he said.
Mahoney said the staff and council clearly looked at the master plan issue differently.
"They were misaligned on that," he said.
The staff can walk an applicant through the process, but there are no guarantees about the council's action, Mahoney said. There is risk involved.
He felt the council's comments and vote made it clear they weren't willing to table the application to give the Loughs time to work on an application for a master plan amendment.
"That amendment would be significant enough that it would be a new application," Mahoney said. "It was too much of a departure."
Whitsitt wrote Wednesday the land-use review process in Basalt has been the same during the nearly 20 years she has served on the council. She said in the RV park case, she felt the staff, planning commission and council all acted in good faith.
"Improved communication is something we strive for and will make the process better," she said. "Updating the master plan is a great place to ensure all are synced."
Whitsitt took exception to an Aspen Times article in Wednesday's paper that characterized her as critical of the staff for not informing the Loughs that their application didn't comply with the master plan.
"The process was criticized and fairly so because it is imperfect, but a work in progress," she said.
Roxanne Lough said she and her husband pursued the project to help out her parents and because she wanted a community-oriented project that preserved the spirit of the property she enjoyed as a Roaring Fork Valley native visiting her grandparents.
The project site was part of a 250-acre property that her grandparents, Joseph and Gisela Fiou, acquired in the early 1920s. The original property once extended across what is now Highway 82 past Big O Tires and up toward the high school. They were potato ranchers and farmers.
Roxanne's mother, Linda Jadwin, inherited a sliver of the property and has tried to sell it for 19 years. Developers have taken options on the property but couldn't earn approvals because the project is in the floodplain. It is cost-prohibitive to raise the level of the land to be able to develop it.
The Loughs thought that was the beauty of their application. Floodplain had no bearing on the 23 RV pads. The 18 tiny-home cabins would have to be anchored but not placed on a permanent foundation.
Roxanne said the project would have been an "oasis" in Basalt — a high-end resort rather than something like a KOA. There were going to be limits on the length of stays at the pads and the cabins, so it would have generated foot traffic for downtown businesses. She also envisioned a nice day lodge with a fireplace and oversize sofas. She planned to host community dinners at the property.
She scoffed at the idea that Basalt values its heritage, given the rejection of a longtime local family's community-oriented application.
The Loughs said they will pursue their remaining option, which is to pursue an RV park with Eagle and Pitkin counties. Their 9 acres is split between the jurisdictions.
There is a good chance Basalt won't end up with as nice of a resort, they said, not from spite but because of different regulations and limits by the counties.