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Commissioner candidates explain positions

Discuss marketing, public lands, climate change, affordable housing

By Mark Reaman

The four candidates for Gunnison County commissioner debated at the Crested Butte News Candidates Forum on Sunday, October 23. In a calm, broad and civil discussion, the candidates took questions that touched on immigration, marketing of the region, impacts of growth and increased tourism, public lands, the importance of broadband, and economic development in Gunnison County.

District 2 candidates Paul Wayne Foreman and incumbent Jonathan Houck, along with District 1 hopefuls John Messner and Brad Tutor, took almost two hours of questions at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts in a forum moderated by Denis B. Hall, with assistance from KBUT’s Chad Reich.

There was a lot of agreement between the candidates on issues such as Crested Butte issue 2A, which would allow the town to use open space funds to be contributed to Mt. Emmons mine owner Freeport McMoRan to ultimately take the unpatented mining claims on Red Lady and put a Congressional mineral withdrawal on the property. That would effectively make an industrial mine on Mt. Emmons impossible. All four candidates supported that idea.

The candidates all agreed that the multicultural center is an important asset for the county that helped immigrants integrate into the community. Each candidate spoke to the essential value of the immigrant population to the economy of Gunnison County.

In other issues:

North Fork protection

When it comes to county input on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recommendation to extensively open up oil and gas leasing in the North Fork Valley that includes a section of Gunnison County, all four believe it worthwhile to be active in the process.

“It is important to understand we’re a headwaters community,” said Houck. “We are responsible to our community and the communities beyond. It is appropriate for us to cooperate with the other nearby counties and provide our input.”

“It is important to have as much local control as possible,” stated Messner. “We need to continue to push for local controls. I would push for local control over air quality, fracking and cumulative impacts.”

“Working collaboratively with the other counties over there is important,” added Tutor. “There is strength in numbers. We need to protect our resources.”

“I’d take a hard stance,” said Foreman. “Why are we continuing to invest in fossil fuels anyway? We should be extremely careful. Gunnison County is about the only place left on the Western Slope without a constant cloud over us. We should do what we can to discourage these things.”

Global weirding?

Climate change was one point of contention. When asked how county policy could be adapted to address climate change concerns, all felt there were ways to encourage the county to be more sustainable, but Tutor expressed some doubt that humans were a major contributing cause to climate change.

Tutor noted the climate was always changing and pointed out the East River Valley is located in a place that was once a glacier. He said the science was not settled and many scientists had changed their minds on how much humans were contributing to the change.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t move ahead with incentives for builders to construct environmentally friendly houses,” Tutor said. “I think that would be a great way to go. Climate change has been going on forever but I think we should try to go with green business. Let’s put ourselves in front of the game.”

Tutor’s opponent, John Messner, asked why, if Tutor doesn’t believe in man-made climate change, he would make decisions to mitigate it. Messner said he would dust off the findings of a Carbon Task Force study from a half dozen years ago and find steps to implement that were appropriate for today. He also said Western State Colorado University’s master’s degree in environmental management program was a good resource for help with “sustainability practices with the county.”

Foreman said he has seen too little in the way of alternative energy in his 35 years here. “I’d offer incentives to builders to build intelligent homes,” he said. “We also have a lot of sunshine here. Why not take advantage of it? I think the new county courthouse project missed an opportunity with solar.”

Houck countered that the courthouse was tapped into geothermal energy as a heat source and the building is highly energy efficient. “To be clear, I believe climate change is human-caused and we have a responsibility to do what we can. The county is leading with compressed natural gas conversion. The West Elk Mine is the state’s number one methane polluter and we should fund the opportunity to pursue methane capture.”

Health care awareness

Three of the four, Houck, Foreman and Messner, felt a single-payer health care system on the national level was the best way to help alleviate the growing problem of health care costs in the region. Tutor, who said he was uninsured because of the rising premium costs, said the issue was a serious one but he did not know the answer to solve the problem. “I’m not sure of the answer but we have a responsibility to advocate [for lower health care premiums] for Gunnison County. I don’t think Amendment 69 will work because there are too many holes in it,” Tutor said.

Backcountry challenges

All admitted that growing backcountry and trail use was causing major impacts throughout the county, especially around Crested Butte, near Tincup and the Taylor Reservoir.

“Sustainable tourism is important,” said Messner. “It is important to develop a funding source to fund infrastructure improvements like trails, campgrounds and trailheads.”

“The ATV problem in Taylor Park is growing,” noted Tutor. “People need to understand the rules. There are OHV [off highway vehicle] fees that are collected by the state that need to come back to the county trails.”

“The Board of Commissioners has the opportunity to weigh in and guide some of the decisions of the federal agencies that control some of these trails and public lands,” said Houck in regard to the Forest Service and BLM. “We need to take care of this treasure we have.”

“We’ve been discovered and problems come with discovery,” said Foreman. “We can’t stuff it back in the bottle. Collaboration with the federal agencies is important.”

And the role of the TA

When asked what role the Tourism Association plays in the equation, Foreman noted the “irony” in the desire to promote the place as problems continue to rise as a result of more people coming to the county.

“It requires a coordinated, all-points approach,” Foreman said. “Sure there will be marketing of the area, but we need to deal with the impacts like low-paying service jobs, affordable housing and poverty in the county. Having a nice coordinated front is important.”

“The focus by the TA to go deeper [by heavily promoting trails and mountain biking] rather than broader has been effective,” said Messner. “There has been cooperation with the TA to get signage and information out there. Having a tie with the TA to develop sustainable tourism is critical.”

Houck said the commissioners have ultimate control over the TA as the LMD (Local Marketing District) board. He said a goal should be to look at places to grow. Saying summer is busy near Crested Butte, there might be winter growth opportunities to focus on.

Tutor said while some places such as Crested Butte might be crowded, other places could use some marketing help. “When I recreate I go south,” he said. “There is no one there. The TA can diversify and show the benefits of all the places in Gunnison County. We should be showing people the opportunity in the whole county.”

“Developing a recreational master plan would be helpful,” said Messner. “We need a strategic plan on how to deal with recreation in the county.”

“I like tapping into winter biking,” said Houck. “We have an extensive network of trails and roads in the county. We’ve gone deep into mountain biking. Also, having the largest body of water in Colorado is under-utilized and we can better capitalize on that.”

“A key is certainly spreading the impacts, and diversity needs to be part of it,” said Foreman. “We should use imagination and not just promote traditional avenues.”

Economic development and better broadband

There was no disagreement among the candidates that better broadband and internet access was necessary for the county. Everyone said it looked like progress was being made in that direction and would make the economy more solid for the county.

“That is something that is critical to developing a diverse and resilient economy,” said Messner. “We need to stop talking about it and make significant commitments.”

Foreman said something like better broadband is just one element that comes into play when businesses decide to invest in the area.

“All of our challenges weave into the others,” observed Foreman. “Whether it’s broadband or affordable housing. Everything comes into play when businesses consider setting up here. What can government do? Sometimes it just needs to stay out of the way. The lifestyle here is attractive.”

STRs and affordable housing

Reich brought up the short-term rental situation in Crested Butte and the county. All four candidates stated that private property rights had to be respected and STRs helped many local people afford to stay in the community. But they all agreed that licensing was appropriate and that perhaps there could be a way to utilize STRs to help fund some affordable housing.

Foreman quoted Crested Butte councilman Jim Schmidt in agreeing that when some people have made the argument that restricting short-term rentals was a “takings,” it in fact worked both ways. The people who permanently live in the community also have elements taken from them if STRs are not controlled, he said. “There needs to be some sort of balance.”

All four felt that developing quality affordable housing was important to the overall county.

Foreman said he would investigate incentives that could be offered to builders to perhaps spark some affordable housing construction.

Messner said he would look again at the building fees and building codes as a possible way to incentivize developers of affordable housing.

Tutor too said looking at fee reductions might entice some affordable housing development.

Houck said county fees are not that expensive and are in fact reasonable. “Those fees are in place to cover county services. It is a herring to go after fees and regulations,” he said noting that county fees on a $600,000 or $700,000 home amount to about $5,500.

They all admitted that local builders were busy constructing more expensive and profitable single-family homes and the market was dictating where the energy was focused.

“There is no silver bullet to solve that issue but we can perhaps do a little bit here and a little bit there to motivate people toward affordable housing,” said Foreman.

“Finding ways to work with private investors and the Land Use Resolution in appropriate places in the county is important,” added Tutor. “It is a difficult situation but not unworkable.”

All four answered the final question of the night by stating that having the federal government transfer public lands to the state or counties was a terrible idea at the moment.

The election is almost over. Ballots are due back to the county clerk by 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8.

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