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Brush Creek public hearing brings vociferous opposition to density

All day hearing continued to March 2

By Mark Reaman

For more than ten hours Friday the Gunnison County Planning Commission and Gunnison County commissioners delved into the proposed Brush Creek affordable housing project, listening to scores of public comments and getting answers to some questions from the developers. The public hearing aspect of the meeting was continued to March 2.

The meeting started at 9 a.m. in a large ballroom filled with about 300 seats at the Lodge at Mountaineer Square in Mt. Crested Butte. The proponent, Gatesco Inc., led by Gary Gates, took 90 minutes to explain the most recent changes to the plan. At 10:30 a.m. the official public hearing began with another presentation by the Gatesco team and went until after 7 p.m. with a few breaks.

The latest rendition of the plan calls for 240 rental apartments in 26 buildings at the corner of Highway 135 and Brush Creek Road that would result in about 225,000 square feet of total building.

photo by Lydia Stern

Of the 240 units, 150 would include a deed restriction that caps income for residents to less than 180 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI). One hundred of those 150 units would be deed-restricted to house people making less than 80 percent of the AMI.

With a reduction of bedrooms from 408 to 362, the developers say they expect about 550 people to live in the project at build-out.

There would be 400 residential parking spaces, a transit center for a bus, a private wastewater treatment plant and two wells to supply water.

Leases for both the 90 free-market and 150 deed-restricted units would be no less than six months. Rents in the deed-restricted units would be no more than 30 percent of a renter’s income and would include some utilities. The first phase of building would include 108 of the apartments.

While the majority of the meeting was calm and civil, there was some contentiousness at the beginning of the public hearing. Some citizens who had showed up to speak at 10:30 a.m. became visibly and vocally frustrated when the Gatesco presentation at the start of the public hearing took more than a half hour and included a couple of videos, including one with an emotional bent from people explaining how important housing was to employers and employees.

When Gatesco principal Gary Gates started to introduce his children after the video, Planning Commission chair for this issue Jack Diani, as he did all day, took control of the meeting and politely asked him not to do so, so the public could have their turn at the podium.

And they did. A steady stream of people lined up and spoke to the planning commissioners and county commissioners, with the vast majority speaking against the project as proposed. Of the scores of comments made at the meeting, fewer than a half dozen people spoke in favor. A stack of more than 350 signed petitions from people opposed to the plan was also presented to the Planning Commission at the end of the meeting.

Those who spoke against the Gatesco sketch plan proposal generally began their comments by acknowledging the need for affordable housing and admitted a project on that piece of property was appropriate but uniformly commented that the density of the 240 rental units was simply too much for the 14 acres.

Other consistent concerns voiced by several people included the possibility of the deed restrictions being eliminated in the future by the lending institution or the county in case of a foreclosure or economic downturn; the impacts of a private wastewater treatment system; the potential impacts of the available water for neighbors after the wells for this development are drilled; the lack of ownership potential; and public costs not yet vetted.

Gatesco attorney Kendall Bergemeister ran through a number of similarly dense projects to demonstrate the need for density in an affordable housing project. He used examples such as Pitchfork in Mt. Crested Butte, the Village Court apartments in Telluride Mountain Village and several examples from Aspen. Gatesco consultant Jeff Moffett told the planning commissioners that given population projections for 2040 in regard to anticipated housing starts (32 percent versus 18 percent), “It is important to base your decision on where we are going, not just where we are at the moment.”

photo by Lydia Stern

Some sentiments from the public hearing: 

Fred Holbrook: The project is way too big and if there is another economic downturn the deed restrictions could disappear. There is a lot of intent to protect them but not a lot of iron-clad requirements.

Chris Myall: Previous affordable housing projects had opposition concerning their locations but they turned out well. “Getting a private investor in on a project like this won’t drive down the value of your trophy home.”

George Gibson: The county LUR [Land Use resolution] defines density and it hasn’t been followed.

Chrissie Nehrenberg: Now that everyone is engaged, maybe now is the time to come up with a better solution. The housing issue is complex and this is a simple solution. The video represented ‘haves’ and have-nots.’ But most of us feel like ‘haves’ since we are incredibly lucky to be here. Together we can come up with a good solution.

Barbara Winter: There are no ownership possibilities. Can some units be rent-to-own? And what about the bus schedule? If you have an employee working at a bar, how do you get home at 2 in the morning? The plan needs to be smaller and closer to the towns.

Rosaline Cook: It is not feasible for people to walk, ski and bike to town every day in every situation. Regular bus service is estimated to cost about $640,000 a year. Who will pay for that?

(Gatesco attorney Kendell Burgemeister later responded, saying “No other development has to pay for its own bus service. Why should this project have to fund its own public transportation when no one else does? I don’t think the developer would support money for additional buses.”)

Steve Polan: The project is not perfect and that is okay. But is it even possible? The two towns [Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte] voted against it and there is overwhelming community opposition. With a stated 2 percent margin, a lot can go wrong. Look at the empty foundations lying fallow in developments on the mountain from the last downturn.

Greg Wilson: Let’s plan projects of the right size at the right place, because every project will have public costs.

Blair Tickhoner: As the attorney for the East River Sanitation District, we have asked three times to open lines of communication with the developer and not heard anything. We are not sure what the state’s position with the idea of an individual wastewater treatment plant here is. We have questions we would like answered.

Arlene Edwards: The nearby neighborhoods are quiet communities and things like night lighting will be impacted by a project of this size. What about the need for added emergency service with this many extra people?

Suzanne Pierson: It seems clear Mt. Crested Butte would want a project like this. People living where they work is a good thing. Maybe consider putting the project where it is wanted. I am also worried about the loss of the Deli trail for all of us out there.

Jim Schmidt: As mayor of Crested Butte I want to again make clear that our initial vote was made to begin negotiations with the developer over the project and never was meant to give him carte blanche. We want to make this parcel work but this proposal is too large and too dense. The proponent hasn’t budged an iota from the 240 units. The community shouldn’t fear this is the only possible project. If he sticks to that number, the county should turn it down to save him money and us time.

Chris Haver: We need to start work on a valley-wide plan to make affordable housing work. Crested Butte’s analysis of this plan indicates the proposal is not compatible under the LUR. It is too dense and creates a new precedent.

Kent Cowherd: The Gunnison to Crested Butte corridor is special and a big part of what separates our rural community feel from other mountain resort areas. Change may be inevitable but we can be deliberate, thoughtful, and measured in how change occurs in the valley. Instead of continuing with a project that is tearing at the fabric of our community and creating division, let’s wipe the slate clean and come together to creatively conceive projects that move us closer to solving our housing needs without eroding our values.

Sally Jandrell: It’s the scale. That has been said over and over. It’s the scale. And the public needs to understand the costs to them. I am also concerned that the treated sewage will be put back into the Slate River by the bridge where people take out their kayaks and paddle boards.

Tom Hamilton: Don’t rush into a flawed development. Deed restricted doesn’t necessarily mean it is affordable. Given the numbers, where are the fields that kids will play on?

John Hess: In town, you don’t know which houses are deed restricted and which aren’t. This will be a place people can point to and say that’s where the deed-restricted people live. This is a good site for affordable housing but the scale of this proposal is just too much for that site. I’ve said it before but will ask publicly again that the county require affordable housing with every new subdivision it approves. If that had happened in the past, we wouldn’t have been talking about this.

Reggie Masters: The lack of community integration is a concern. This doesn’t have a community feel to me. It separates the workers from the rest of the community.

Jim Starr: I support this project. Is it perfect? No. No project is perfect. But we need rental housing more than we need for-sale housing at this point. It costs a lot more to provide for-sale affordable housing. We have been asking for years for affordable rental housing and this is the first project that accomplishes that. We also need Mt. Crested Butte to step up and develop those 17 acres. We have nearly built out Crested Butte so the opportunity for affordable housing to co-mingle with free market is gone. We have always prided ourselves as a community where people live near where they work.

Patricia Pierson: I fully support this project because it provides much-needed housing with little cost to the taxpayers. It is a developer investing his money—not using taxpayer money. Yes, there are some issues, but it is a phased development so adjustments can be made along the way.

Amalie Lester: I speak for many people who cannot be here because of work. Many of us who work three jobs support this project and we are being squeezed out faster than you think. Take emotions out of it and just look at the facts… This land is dedicated for affordable housing and something will be built there. Think about your bank teller, your snow plower, the person who makes your coffee. Think about the teacher who lives in Gunnison and who couldn’t get on the bus to Crested Butte because it was full. This project assists our working community in finding a place to call home.

Sue Navy: When I came to Crested Butte in 1971 there were about 250 people living here and we had a park, a post office, a store and a gas station. To drop a community two or three times that size on the corner of the highway and Brush Creek Road without any amenities would be irresponsible. A population of that size is misplaced at that location.

Glo Cunningham: Your comparison with Pitchfork is very informative. In 153 units in Pitchfork, there are 359 beds. This project proposes 240 units with 362 beds. Why not reduce the number of units? That would reduce the building size, wouldn’t it? In addition, the workers will not be able to afford these rents and I think there are too many free-market units in the plan. The deed restrictions need to be in perpetuity.

Bob Pannier: Every nearby resident I’ve met agrees this property is appropriate for affordable housing, So it is ‘Yes, in our backyard,’ but not this particular project that would add a population the same as Mt. Crested Butte and half the town of Crested Butte.

Eileen Whitley: We live in cyclical economic times. What if in the next two years there is a downturn and the land has been cleared and the developer just walks away? And it is not just the density but the impact of density. Just look at parking. Where will the extra cars go? If we get this wrong, we create a debacle. Let’s do affordable housing but let’s do it right.

Laura Irwin: Approving this project is penny-wise and pound-foolish. There are other options and opportunities. Request another RFP [Request for Proposals] because now that this has been so widely discussed, I think there will be more interest.

Norman Eastwood: Having looked at [Gatesco’s] current projects in Houston, there are building maintenance issues and that is something the county should be considering when partnering with someone. It appears Gatesco has not been maintaining its existing assets to minimum standards. Go to Houston and see for yourself. Slow down and do this right.

(Gary Gates responded forcibly later in the meeting that Eastwood had taken his examples out of context and in fact his buildings were consistently improved after purchase and crimes rates dropped in complexes he purchased in Houston.)

David Leinsdorf: This has been a positive conversation. The LUR calls for compatibility, which is a very high burden. “It is very clear the developer has not met the burden of establishing compatibility.”

Robert McCarter: (Presented more than 350 signed petitions from people against the project.) Everyone who signed a petition clearly understands the need for affordable housing and fully supports a development at Highway 135 and Brush Creek Road. But they don’t support this development. Personally this whole thing has been tough. It’s been hard. But we’ll keep fighting for something good.

Michael Warner: We came here to Crested Butte because it is not Vail. It is not Aspen. We came here for the culture of Crested Butte. It is where my soul is. Crested Butte is a mixed community and affordable housing is key. This project does not fit the valley or our values. Let’s take this negative, controversial energy and turn it into something positive. Let’s do what’s right by doing what’s best.

Ted Colvin: I am worried about the water impacts. The LUR should protect us all. This project is so far away from what I ever thought the LUR would allow there in terms of density.

Rewk Patten: I’ve worked in the ski industry and been to ski resorts all over the world. They all have to deal with affordable housing. I have seen some resorts do affordable housing really well and others do it like this proposal, which I think is a mistake. First impressions are important and to come into Crested Butte by first passing through a high-density mini-city isn’t appropriate.

Gates ended the meeting responding to some questions. He disputed the characterization of Norman Eastwood’s description of his Houston properties. He explained his current involvement in a few lawsuits that were brought up in the hearing. He said as far as the 17 acres in Mt. Crested Butte, “There is a process since no one person has fiat power to give away land. And why would I want to build up there? If this is not successful at the Brush Creek location, how successful would it be up there where it is further away from the school and the grocery?” Gates said he has attempted to reach out and meet with opponents.

The Planning Commission felt, given the issue and open questions about the project, it would be best to continue the public hearing. It will resume on Friday, March 2 at 9 a.m. in the same room at Mountaineer Square.

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