“There’s nothing scurrilous going on”
By Toni Todd
Last week, the Gunnison County Community Development Department received an application from Gatesco Inc. for what’s known as the Brush Creek Project. The development promises 240 units, from studios to family-sized apartments, 65 percent of which are expected to be deed-restricted, workforce housing.
“Once I’ve had time to review it, I’ll have a better idea of when we’ll schedule it with the Planning Commission,” said Gunnison County community development director Cathie Pagano.
She estimates the first Planning Commission work session to discuss Brush Creek could happen in late October or early November. Pagano said it typically takes eight months to two years for major impact projects to progress through the county’s land use resolution approval process.
Pagano’s review of the application, she says, is to ensure it’s both “complete and compliant.” Pagano said she’ll likely make the application available on the county’s website in a week or two.
At its regular meeting this week, Gunnison County commissioners voted to allow Gatesco’s application to move forward. Attorney David Leinsdorf, representing what he described as “a non-profit Colorado corporation” called Friends of Brush Creek, brought up a concern regarding the original memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by all owners of the Brush Creek Property—namely, Gunnison County, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
“The MOA does not list free market housing as a permitted use,” Leinsdorf said. The Gatesco project includes a number of market-rate rentals in addition to the deed-restricted units. “We sent a CORA request (Colorado Open Records Act) to the towns asking for amendments to the 1998 MOA, and they responded that they don’t have any amendments to the agreement.”
County manager Matthew Birnie responded that respective owners of the Brush Creek property each reviewed the Gatesco request for proposal (RFP), held open meetings to discuss the idea and agreed to allow the applicant to proceed. “This item simply allows the applicant to enter the LUR process at their own risk,” he said.
Leinsdorf said Friends of Brush Creek counts residents of several subdivisions along Brush Creek Road as its supporters.
Birnie has said the Brush Creek proposal will go through the same rigorous process as any major-impact project. Pagano confirmed this at an informal press conference held immediately after the county commissioners’ meeting this past Tuesday. County attorney David Baumgarten was there too, to clarify and dispel misunderstandings of the approval process for new development in the county.
The Brush Creek Project is a private/public effort that promises workforce housing for residents who earn as much as 140 percent of Area Median Income.
Proponents say the project will ease the housing crisis at the north end of the valley, providing affordable rental options for those earning a good living here but who still can’t afford to buy or rent a home at free-market rates.
Opponents worry about the size of the project, its density, location, impact on traffic and the Crested Butte Community School, and other services.
“It is a major-impact project,” Pagano said, “so that includes three phases of review: Sketch Plan, Preliminary Plan and Final Plan.” Any applicant, she says, has the option to combine their Preliminary and Final Plans, and most do. At least one public hearing will be held at each phase of the process.
Pagano explained that the term “expedited” in the LUR does not mean that any of these phases will be waived or rushed. It only refers to a project’s place in the queue among other applicants applying for land use changes.
The LUR makes concessions for what it calls essential, or workforce, housing, moving those projects to the head of the line with each phase of the process. Pagano said in the case of Brush Creek, it’s not a huge impact on other applicants since there aren’t many in the pipeline right now.
Baumgarten explained that any major land use change proposal should be scrutinized with the following questions: Is this project needed? Is it appropriate? Is it the right size, in the right place, with the right design? “There should be a robust conversation about that,” he said. “Let the process shake this proposal up and see what happens.”
The long, arduous pathway each land use change proposal must follow en-route to approval or denial, he said, ensures that shakeup. “There is an acknowledgment that you have to go through the county’s process. So, there is no opportunity for us to skate around it, avoid it, contain it, predetermine it or otherwise.
“Developers often say, ‘You grind things so finely, we’ll never get a project through your process.’ You enter the process with an RFP,” Baumgarten said, “but by the time the process is approved, it looks vastly different. You say you’ll do this many units of this, and this many units of that, but really, as anybody who’s gone through that process knows, the devil is in the details. What comes out the other end really has its foundation in how it went in, but it is tremendously more specific [when it comes out].”
That difference, Baumgarten said, is influenced greatly by public input.
Pagano explained that the Sketch Plan phase focuses mostly on the basic design of the project. Details like traffic studies, parking, access to public transit, and environmental impact assessments are expensive, she says, and it would be unfair to force the applicant to incur those costs early on in the process, before knowing whether the initial design stands a good chance of approval.
The LUR offers incentives to those willing to build workforce housing. One such incentive is the expedition of the application. Others include variances in the allowed height of the structure, reduction in setback distances, and deferred sewer fees. “The Planning Commission can approve such modifications to the design with the exception of those things that impact safety and the environment,” she said.
One point of confusion regarding the Brush Creek project is how and when the 14-acre property will be conveyed to the developer. While several entities own the land, the county’s name is on the deed, and the county is responsible for negotiating and executing the land deal.
“We have not yet consummated an agreement with Gatesco,” said Baumgarten, “but the current thinking is, sell it to them, with the acknowledgment that it’s going to go through the process, that the entry point of the process is whatever that RFP came up with, and leave the board [of county commissioners] as the final arbiter in the process, with the opportunity to re-convey the property [back to the county] if the process is not a success.
“I think that the conveyance price to Gatesco is small. I think it’s $200,000,” Baumgarten continued, with a re-conveyance price of $100,000, accounting for some of the cost Gatesco will likely incur as it makes its way through the land use change process.
“The reason for the small purchase price to the developer is an acknowledgement of the public benefit that we are anticipating the county and citizens would receive from this project,” explained Pagano. “Oftentimes that requires a large subsidy or input from local government. The public benefit comes in the form of the deed restrictions on housing.”
Choosing when to sell the land will take some thought. Baumgarten says it could happen at the beginning of the process, or wait until the end, and there are pros and cons to each. It’s possible, he said, the transaction will take place somewhere in the middle.
Pagano said it’s not uncommon for a land use change application to enter the LUR process before the applicant owns the land. “Not unusual at all—as long as we have a notarized consent form from the property owner. What makes this unusual is the current owners of the land.”
Baumgarten assured there are no backdoor deals being made here. Yes, conversations with the applicant have taken place regarding the price of the land. But the RFP process, he said, was both open and competitive. “This is not an invention of Matthew’s,” he said, referring to accusations in recent letters to the editor in Gunnison Valley newspapers that the county manager is pushing for approval of the project. “There’s nothing scurrilous going on.”
Baumgarten and Pagano praised the efforts of local government officials to remedy the workforce housing crunch, calling them “bold.”
“It’s bold for governments to collaborate. It’s bold for them to identify and address a housing crisis like this,” said Baumgarten.