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Political blunder on Brush Creek

It is probably too late now but looking back, I believe the Brush Creek affordable housing controversy could have been the Brush Creek affordable housing kumbaya moment. Given the political nature of the controversy, let’s chalk this one up to a political blunder.

Most everyone agrees that the publicly owned 13 or 14 acres at the corner of Brush Creek Road and Highway 135 is a good place for some affordable, workforce, essential housing. It is a good place for a park-and-ride. But the specific proposal being pushed has major issues. Some of those issues could have been avoided with some early public interaction. For whatever reason, the local politicos chose not to do that. It is now causing headaches for everyone.

As I understand it, Houston rental manager and developer Gary Gates and his company, Gatesco, approached the county to possibly buy the property. This reawakened the property partners—the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, Gunnison County and Crested Butte Mountain Resort—to the lands’ potential. Gatesco was told the process would have to be opened up publicly and the four owners decided to issue a Request for Qualifications followed by a Request for Proposals.

Stop right there.

In my opinion, the blunder came when the “owners”—our elected representatives—chose to not engage the public at that point. A public meeting explaining that the four partners were ready to move forward and develop that property for housing would have been appropriate before the RFQ and RFP were issued. The publicly-owned land is, after all, owned by you and me and every other taxpaying person in the towns and county. This is not the case of a private developer coming in with a proposal on private property. That matters.

Given that fact, it seems perfectly appropriate for the public, elected officials, government planners and all potential developers to sit down and generally talk about what they’d like to see out there. Shape the big picture. Crested Butte reps said they advocated for such a public process but were rejected by the other partners.

Discussing an overall concept could have provided neighbors with an outlet for red flag concerns and some assurances. It could have given potential developers some parameters. It would have started a public-private partnership off on the right foot, with the public actually taking part in the plan.

Any good leader or motivational speaker will say it is a lot easier to move a project forward when the team is on board. Success comes when people feel a part of the process and the headwinds become a small breeze instead of Hurricane Irma. Why the local politicos chose to take a path of exclusion instead of one of inclusion baffles me.

I will always bristle at the “we know the problem and the solution better than you” attitude those in the political and bureaucratic bubble sometimes get caught up in. With 100 aggravated constituents showing up to a quick county commissioner meeting Wednesday morning, it seems obvious that that political blunder is causing a major rift within the community and that project. Taking the time to get out ahead and include the public early in the process would have been a smart political move. While the county appears full steam ahead with the plan, the other partners are now starting to show some reservations.

A developer-driven proposal is starting its way through the county review process. This high-density, all-rental project is what people have to react to for that property. The plan proposes 240 rental units. More than half of them would have deed restrictions. The developer had planned to bring in construction crews to help build the project. Who knows if those crews will still be available after the recent floods in Houston?

The commissioners have put themselves in a position where they can no longer talk about the plan at all—the general concept, big picture elements, anything—because they have so-called quasi-judicial obligations to make the ultimate decision on whether this particular project gets approved or not.

That’s another issue. The commissioners’ county manager Matthew Birnie, is the lead partner in negotiations with Gatesco. I respect Matthew’s ability to get stuff done even in the face of opposition. The courthouse and jail are major accomplishments. He is doing what his bosses want and his bosses want a big workforce housing project soon to address the growing problem in the county. It is, however, legitimate to raise an eyebrow when the plan appears to have the county’s general blessing before a review begins. Tricky stuff, that.

Local politicians rightfully want to address an issue that is an obvious need. Planners and administrative types look at the numbers, the charts and graphs and want to develop something. It all looks great on paper but reality brings real ramifications. While the commissioners promise a “robust” pubic hearing over the proposal (and I believe that will happen), eagerness may have trumped prudence in the long view.

So people are freaking about a major development that will have major growth impacts in the north end of the valley. Impacts from hundreds of new residents will bring more crowded roads, crowded classrooms, crowded parks in Crested Butte, a new look to the Crested Butte entrance corridor. It is an urban development in a suburban location. It separates workers on an island away from primary communities instead of following our traditional integration of mixing all economic classes.

The numbers of those who would qualify under deed restrictions are somewhat in question, given analysis from opponents. It offers no purchase opportunity for future buy-in. We will no doubt hear a lot about all of these concerns and more over the next few months at the county Planning Commission level. My guess is, given the breadth of concern, some of those things will change by the end.

With the promise of robust public input, let’s touch on two “debate issues” that are already clouding the discussion on this project. I have heard from several people that someone from the Skyland neighborhood made a comment at a meeting to the effect of, “We don’t want those people there.” Hey, my family, my friends and me are “those people,” so if that is truly anyone’s real attitude—they can suck it.

On the other side, there are those who pull up the defense that the concerns being raised are simply whining NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). That’s the lamest defense people can use when they have a weak argument. Do they think only people from Salida or Pitkin can legitimately and objectively comment on a project in the valley? Of course the comments will come from those in the neighborhood with a nearby backyard. That is how a successful review process works. Those who rely on a NIMBY defense to undercut valid concerns can suck it as well.

Look, the public process can be painful. It slows things down and while every comment is valid, some can be silly, others inane and some originate from waaaaaaay out of left field. But this is public land and that changes things and how the process should be handled. Including the public immediately would have been wise. Government, like it or not, is meant to be a slow, deliberative, very public process that ends up with a result that benefits the common good.

Perhaps in their zeal to jump on a potential solution to a real problem, our public representatives chose to forgo this initial big-picture public discussion. They made a choice and are paying the price. So we can now expect a lot of “robustness”. I support and have no doubt that ultimately some sort of workforce housing will be located on that property. In the north end of the valley at least, a full-bodied, upfront, public engagement process always works out better in the end and can head off obvious red flags.This current process did not include that. Blunder.

—Mark Reaman

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