Monday, October 14, 2019

Council a bit flummoxed on housing

Gravel pit camping is stupid, easing some restrictions, surveys

by Mark Reaman

Some Crested Butte councilmen want to take the long view of the affordable housing dilemma and prepare a solid plan for next year. Others want to put tents on the ground immediately to alleviate some of the current stress. In a long and many times circular discussion at the Monday, June 15 Town Council meeting, the council sort of decided to do a little of both.

There will not be a workforce campground at the Crested Butte gravel pit this summer.

There will be a job posting for a temporary person to be hired by town to conduct a survey of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Crested Butte.

Council will consider taking a deed-restricted lot and easing those restrictions to sell it at close to free-market value to replenish the town affordable housing fund.

The council has not yet decided whether to follow town ordinance and not charge affordable housing fees associated with a major Center for the Arts construction project, even if the building is owned by the town.

Campground at gravel pit not happening
In a long meeting filled with frustration by both council and staff Monday night, the council circled around the topic of affordable housing for hours. Town manager Todd Crossett presented a preliminary outline of what it would take to open the gravel pit to camping. He estimated there was room for 30 spots that could accommodate two or even three people each. Bringing in toilets and showers, providing a campground host to oversee the operation, monitoring campers to make sure they are working in Crested Butte and including other town costs would result in each spot being charged between $550 and $600 a month just to cover town costs.

“That’s high but given the cost of a studio or one-bedroom unit in town being over $1,000, I’d bet you get some people to pay that,” he said.

Crossett said marshals were not concerned with controlling traffic behind the school if a campground were placed there, but they expected there might be some noise issues to deal with. “To assume there won’t be some parties out there is probably unrealistic,” he said.

Crossett also said the staff has received comments about the aesthetic and social impacts of placing a temporary campground in that location.

“Everyone I have talked to about this idea said this is a really stupid idea,” relayed councilman Glenn Michel. “It may be well intended but I believe it will open up more problems than it will solve. I think it is better to spend time on longer-term ideas like preparing the Avalanche Park campground at the top of the hill coming into town or looking at the possible annexation for some ideas.”

“I think the gravel pit camping idea is a bad idea. I’ll add to that and say there appear to be rentals available in Gunnison,” said councilman Skip Berkshire. “With the free RTA buses commuting between the two ends of the valley, those are a real source of housing for people. And I would like to see some real numbers about what we are talking about. We have anecdotal data, but what is the real number we are dealing with?”

“The fact is, now there are only seven or eight days left before we are at full speed,” noted councilperson Chris Ladoulis. “I’m with Glenn. I’d say let’s work on something like Avalanche Park for next year.”

“The $550 a month is higher than I expected,” admitted mayor pro tem Jim Schmidt.

“You guys are putting up artificial barriers,” countered councilman Shaun Matusewicz. “You are worried about aesthetics? It’s a gravel pit. It’s really ugly right now. If we wait until everything is perfect, nothing would get done. We could take a smaller bite and put in 20 spots and put some port-a-potties out there. We will learn from the experience and be able to apply it to Avalanche Park.”

“We all have an interest to preserve our community through the housing situation and we all want to be progressive and nimble,” said mayor Aaron Huckstep via phone from Boston, where he is attending a three-week government-focused seminar. “Our staff has been saying they are stretched super thin and we can expect the busiest summer ever. We don’t have unlimited resources with our staff. I think it is better to think it all through and address it next season.”

Crossett said the staff had discussed loosening the rules in town that would allow people to camp on private property with the owner’s permission. “That would address some of the sanitation issues. It is a middle-ground idea,” he said.

“Camping issues impact the land all around town,” noted councilman Roland Mason. “People will be crowded on public land this summer.”

“To think it won’t get worse is silly,” said Matusewicz.

“You won’t get those people to come in to town if they have to pay $550 a month,” said Ladoulis.

“It would be smart to engage the other stakeholders like Mt. Crested Butte, Crested Butte South and the county,” said Michel. “This needs a regional solution. There will always be people who want to be here in town but can’t make it happen.”

“It seems the cost and the timing for a campground at the gravel pit is prohibitive,” concluded Mason.
Most of the rest of the council agreed.

Monitoring accessory dwellings
As for nailing down the ADUs through a survey, an even longer discussion between council and staff took place. The purpose of the survey is to get a definitive count of how many are being rented long-term. The town staff has estimated 85 percent of the available ADUs in town are being utilized properly, based on a deal where tap fee discounts were allowed in exchange for making the small units available to long-term renters. So 15 percent of the 84 ADUs in town and 57 deed restricted residential units in mixed use commercial buildings might be getting away with something. The council is skeptical about that number and wants to see if owners of unused ADUs can be convinced to open them to renters.

Crossett said he would advertise a temporary $12 per hour position to conduct a survey of ADUs but based on advice from town attorney John Belkin, it would be prudent to not necessarily try to knock on doors and peek in windows to figure out if someone is living in an accessory dwelling unit, as some on council had suggested.

Huckstep had suggested the town work with the housing authority to provide ADU owners an incentive to rent the units if they aren’t doing so. He said perhaps the town could act as or facilitate property managers to screen renters and take care of the management process, even going so far as to conduct lawn and snow maintenance at no charge in exchange for renting the units at a predetermined affordable rent.

More data
Ladoulis argued the council was focused on talking about details when the general issue had not yet been crystallized. “We need to talk about the issue, then the mechanisms to address it,” he said. “I’d support getting information first. Let’s take an actual census in town over the whole matter. How many people live year-round in town? How many houses go dark with second homeowners? How many people are renting and how many places are there to rent?”

“That’s a needs assessment survey and we asked if you as a council wanted to participate in such a survey this summer. You indicated no,” responded town planner Michael Yerman. “We had a chance to do that this summer. I’m not sure that chance is still there.”

“I’m confused why the council expects a different outcome from what has been discovered before,” said Huckstep. “We have heard for years that ADUs can’t be enforced and the town doesn’t have the authority to control rents. If 85 percent are compliant, that’s pretty good. There is the potential of picking a fight with some of these owners over what they’re not obligated to do.”

Ladoulis rolled off a long list of ideas the council had talked about in recent months when it came to affordable housing. “It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” he said. “There’s no real focus.”

“The idea of the ADU survey is to simply get definitive data,” said Berkshire.

“Also understand that other municipalities are having a hard time with this and with enforcement,” said Belkin.
“Getting more data will lead to how we deal with blocks 79 and 80,” said Ladoulis, referring to the blocks allocated for deed-restricted housing that will have infrastructure installed this summer.

“If you over-analyze it then nothing will happen until five years down the road,” said Schmidt.

Mason suggested that the town ask to see a lease from owners of ADUs to prove whether the unit is being rented.
Matusewicz expressed frustration that the council was asking the same questions for three meetings in a row and not getting answers to those questions from the staff.

“We’re moving this as fast as we can,” responded Crossett. “If this is your top priority, let us know and we’ll drop something else to focus on this.”

Ladoulis wanted information and answers before September when infrastructure to blocks 79 and 80 would be completed so the council could perhaps adjust how much density the infrastructure handled.

Yerman told the council “that ship had sailed” since it awarded a contract just a few weeks ago to Lacy Construction to install very specific and engineered infrastructure on the blocks.

“Overall, none of this stuff is quick,” admitted Yerman. “But I would recommend we do the needs assessment survey regionally to have that tool. Crested Butte can’t do it all.”

“We can only do so much,” said Berkshire. “We’re trying to do too much too soon. We can’t treat everything like it’s the end of the world. The needs assessment will be valuable information.”

“There’s still an urgency to help people looking for housing out there,” said Mason. “We owe it to the people in town to look into the ADUs.”

The staff will move toward conducting both surveys.

Lifting a deed restriction to help affordable housing
As for the idea of lifting deed restrictions on an “affordable lot” to sell it on the free market and put that money in the affordable housing fund, the majority of the council was not completely ready to do that. They asked the staff to come back with some options for easing some of the restrictions but not eliminating them.

Yerman explained that with Anthracite Place and the cost for infrastructure on blocks 79 and 80, the affordable housing fund would be running an $83,000 deficit.

“Here’s another example of making unconnected decisions over this issue,” said Ladoulis. “At the end of the day we are making decisions that aren’t connected.”

“Trying to do too much and do it poorly doesn’t work,” said Berkshire. “It feels like last-minute crisis decision making.”

Schmidt said he has for years advocated selling a deed-restricted lot on the free market to garner funds. “It seems very appropriate to me,” he said.

Former councilman John Wirsing, who lives in deed restricted housing near the lot being discussed, said the idea was a bad one. “I was always told that those deed restrictions were permanent,” he said. “Obviously I was misinformed. But with all the development that has occurred there up to now, an open market lot doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood. To sell that lot on the open market now is absurd. Chris is right in that you guys are not making cohesive decisions on the issue. We need to be planning and thinking things out.”

“This all brings me back to the Center for the Arts discussion,” said Matusewicz. “We have a sales tax interest fund with $700,000. The council is ready to give the Center $500,000 from there. Why not split it between the Center and affordable housing and then we wouldn’t have to take an affordable lot out of town forever?”

The council asked the staff to come back to them with options for easing the deed restrictions on the lot but not eliminating them.

And the discussion will go on and on and on.

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