Saturday, February 24, 2018
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In the cluster of noise, there is still opportunity

I think it fair to begin another Brush Creek discussion with the obvious question and then move to the more long-term theoretical discussion, which I believe still has opportunity.

If I were on the Planning Commission my first question at the next meeting would be to the attorney. I’d ask if it is normal or a waste of time to review a sketch plan proposal for a 240-unit development on a piece of property that is not owned by the proponent and may not be, given that two of the four “owners” have now officially voted to not transfer the land to the developer unless major changes in density are completed. I don’t know the answer.

On to the theoretical discussion…Just because two people listen to the same words doesn’t mean they hear the same thing. Everyone thinks they are as clear as Winston Churchill when they speak. Everyone thinks they are an empath and understand everything perfectly when they listen. The fact is, most people are not as eloquent as they believe and most listen through a filter clouded by their biases and perceptions. That’s all normal but it can sometimes contribute to confusion, complications, frustration and ultimately anger if not checked. Welcome to the community’s Brush Creek debate.

Let’s start with some facts (and brief commentary):

—Everyone agrees that the entire valley needs more housing that is more affordable to people who work here. Ideally, people would live near their jobs and no one would leave the valley because of high rents or lack of good housing. We all agree on that basic “moral” point.

—There will eventually be some sort of affordable housing on the Brush Creek property.

—The developer of the current proposal, Gary Gates, has stepped up with a real plan and real money that addresses workforce housing in the valley. That’s big and should be applauded. Now, he has said repeatedly he will not come down on the number of units included in his plan: 240 rental apartments—and that appears the main controversy in the proposal. Gates has recently made some valid moves toward mitigation measures that include more units for lower income workers. That too deserves acknowledgment. He has reduced the number of buildings and bedrooms to, in theory, reduce the number of people who would reside there, and that’s a good direction if it can continue.

—While the Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority Strategic Plan calls for a “pipeline of housing projects throughout the valley,” that pipeline doesn’t yet exist as far as I know and this project should have an impact on that list.

—That same basic GVRHA strategic plan calls for a very strong private-public collaboration to obtain housing “while maintaining the character of the built environment unique to each jurisdiction.” Cool.

— The two towns, CB and Mt. CB, that will feel the real impacts of this project… positive and negative… have both sent a message of “Not this project at this place with that density” to the county and development team. That couldn’t be clearer and should make a political decision from the commissioners relatively simple.

But again, most people, myself included, hear what they hear through a sometimes-cloudy filter.

Let’s take that last fact: The way representative government works is that elected officials gather info on a topic and take a vote on the issue. That issue is decided through the vote. Done. So I heard that two of the four partners in the ownership of the Brush Creek property voted officially last week to not sell the property to this particular developer and stated that while housing is appropriate on that property, the 240-unit density and associated ramifications are the main issues. That was confirmed Tuesday at a joint meeting between the two councils.

So, I heard that the property wouldn’t be sold unless the density changes. At the same time, I heard that the developer wouldn’t budge from the 240-unit number. So, I hear there are two definitive positions that result in an official impasse. Hence that question at the top of this editorial.

But my friend John O’Neal of Gatesco heard a different message from the same circumstance. He heard that the tie Mt. Crested Butte vote was not a message “to kill the project.” He feels there is a new wave of support coming for the 240-unit rental project and indicates he is hearing it would take only one vote from that council to change its mind and agree to transfer the property. So the development team hears that it is prudent to keep going through the county review process. That despite Gary telling the Mt. CB council that if they didn’t approve the sale he was taking his plan and going home.

More differences in what is heard: After a preliminary selection process, Gates heard he’d been chosen to go full steam ahead with what people thought at first blush was a really good project. And a lot of it was. Then some initial pushback came and the councils and many community members threw up a few warning signals and pushback grew. Gary still thought it would be a relatively quick process. What could go wrong? He was addressing a known need that everyone agreed needed solving. He perhaps hadn’t heard about this valley where nothing moves all that quickly. Welcome to Crested Butte.

And let’s not even go to results from Facebook surveys or anonymous business polls that might get manipulated when even the numbers in the Gunnison Valley Needs Assessment report get thrown around and interpreted very differently by each side. Or how about when second homeowners are considered part of the community except when they aren’t (like when they don’t vote so their opinion this time doesn’t count)?

Another example: When the developers say at the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council meeting that “Crested Butte is too in love with its charm” and “It is more important to maintain community than charm,” many hear that the end justifies the means and any resulting negative consequence. I believe the developers are trying to say that some sacrifice is needed in terms of doing things differently from the way they’ve been done in the past. I think they are saying that sacrifice ends up accomplishing the good goal of providing workforce housing.

But what is the long-term cost? The unique charm of the north end of the valley is the primary competitive advantage we have over other mountain resort communities. It is also why many of us live here. To eliminate the “charm” for more housing without looking at the big picture is a bit risky. To eliminate that charm, for whatever purpose, actually just might solve the housing issue since tourists choose where to vacation and if there are more “charming” places that are easier to get to, the concern is Crested Butte (and thus the county) will lose on both fronts.

In the noise of this current debate, people seem to have drawn hard lines. Choosing to abandon “charm”’ for the valid goal of affordable housing is not necessarily an either/or choice. There are potential compromises that have been proposed.

I believe there is great opportunity that can come from this whole discussion—and perhaps it is with the assistance and knowledge of Gary Gates. Perhaps it is not.

If I had a magic wand I would at the very least use it to take a time out so everyone could step back, cool off and find the common ground that exists but can’t be heard in the current cloud of noise and positioning. I’d use the time out to flesh out a complete “pipeline” of housing options in terms of both locations and make-up that includes ownership as well as rentals. I’d look at public subsidies (both cash and in-kind) available to make affordable housing projects easier on private developers.

And I’d remind everyone that this is, in theory, a public process reviewing a plan based on data, community and neighborhood concerns and desires for the future. It’s not supposed to be a pulpit on which to take a moral stand. I have not met anyone against having people live near their jobs and in favor of friends leaving the valley because of high rents or lack of good housing. We all agree on that basic “morality” point. It does not have to be an either/or issue. There is good on both sides.

The bottom line is that I don’t have a magic wand to compel people to take a time out to cool off and readjust the hard lines in the sand over this proposal. It is the county commissioners who have that magic wand—and given the recent official votes of their two government partners, maybe they’ve heard that it is perhaps time for them to use it and reset the discussion.

—Mark Reaman

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