Frustrated developer lets option expire on controversial Basalt property | AspenTimes.com

Frustrated developer lets option expire on controversial Basalt property

Lowe Enterprises let its option expire on the land fenced to the right. The development firm had little faith its plan would be approved by Basalt.

The Aspen development firm that wanted to build a condominium hotel on the old Pan and Fork property near downtown Basalt has given up its option to buy the land out of frustration.

Lowe Enterprises and landowner Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. mutually agreed to terminate the contract, the parties said in a statement Thursday.

"Comments and feedback from town officials have made it clear that Lowe will not obtain development approvals for any of their proposals, leading the CDC and Lowe to jointly agree to terminate the agreement," the parties said in the statement.

Lowe never filed a formal proposal but it had outlined four potential plans for the town. Its latest concept was unveiled in August. It proposed an 85,000-square-foot condominium hotel and associated commercial development on 1.3 acres. It offered to help the town acquire an additional 1 acre of the CDC property for a park.

“I think there’s a feeling that they shouldn’t feed the Basalt anti-development machine.”

— Michael McVoy, landowner rep

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Michael McVoy, board president of the CDC, said Thursday the contract with Lowe had been renewed seven times over the past three years. The contract for the sale of 2.3 acres of vacant land hinged on Lowe submitting an application to the town and getting approval.

"(Our) reading is Lowe's proposal would go down," McVoy said. "I think there's a feeling that they shouldn't feed the Basalt anti-development machine."

Jim DeFrancia, president of Lowe Enterprises, said it would likely cost $60,000 to $70,000 to prepare a formal application for the Basalt council's review. His firm is unwilling to spend that money since approval appears impossible at this time.

Basalt officials told DeFrancia they couldn't offer feedback on his latest proposal because it was outside the scope of the usual review process.

In most scenarios with local government, a developer confers with the planning staff in pre-application hearings, prepares and submits a plan and the formal review process begins. It's rare for a developer and elected body to sit down outside the formal process for legal reasons.

Under a previous administration, the town would provide feedback in pre-application conferences, but that practice has stopped, according to Mayor Jacque Whitsitt.

"We never received an application so we had nothing to comment on formally," she said.

However, the "word on the street" was that some members of the council oppose a condo-hotel, according to Whitsitt. At least three council members, including Whitsitt, have publicly stated a preference to buy the property from CDC so the town can control the fate of the property.

DeFrancia said he was only seeking "broad guidance" from the council on issues such as waiver of fees, affordable-housing allowances and general views of the concept rather than a firm promise. Without the guidance, it doesn't make sense for his firm to continue renewing options to buy the property.

The statement released by Lowe and CDC criticizes the town for not providing more leadership.

"Clear and committed guidance is needed from the public sector and that guidance must accept economic realities as well as aspirational desires," DeFrancia said in the statement.

CDC bought the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park in Basalt seven years ago and immediately sold Basalt about 3 acres for a park along the Roaring Fork River (some of that property is in the water and not usable). The nonprofit organization wants to sell the property so it can recoup the money it has invested and pay off its lenders.

"We very much appreciate Lowe's efforts to gain approval, and share Lowe's frustration with the difficult environment in Basalt that has blocked any progress," McVoy said in the statement.

The town asked voters in November to pass a bond issue to raise revenue to buy CDC's property for $2.9 million with a goal of expanding the park. The effort had the blessing of CDC and Lowe. The measure was defeated in a close vote. The townspeople are close to evenly divided on the issue.

Since the election, some members of the council have suggested the town government could buy the property without issuing bonds and paying them with a property tax increase.

When asked if he felt Basalt interfered with CDC's contract with Lowe by stating a preference to buy the property or in any other way, McVoy said, "We certainly don't think we've been treated fairly."

CDC hired Aspen attorney Matt Ferguson to represent it in the land use matter. He wrote a letter to town attorney Tom Smith this week that stops just short of threatening a lawsuit.

"The robust and hot debate among the Town's evenly divided community — though interesting — has held RFCDC in its expensive limbo and does not provide an excuse for inaction at the great expense to this nonprofit," the letter said.

CDC's letter already has had a chilling effect on the town. The council scheduled a work session for Wednesday to discuss if it wants to advance on the purchase. That work session has been canceled and instead an executive session will be held Tuesday for the council to confer with Smith on CDC's letter, according to Town Manager Ryan Mahoney.

Councilman Auden Schendler said he is hopeful that the expiration of Lowe's contract to buy the property could still jumpstart the process to find a resolution.

"What this would do is open this parcel to the open market," he said. "I think it moves the ball forward."

Other developers might be able to look at the issue and come up with alternative proposals, he said. Schendler feels it is "incumbent on the council" to help move the issue along.

"There needs to be a compromise," he said.

The park proponents would have to accept less park than they want and the development proponents would have to accept less square footage, Schendler said.

scondon@aspentimes.com