Density the big issue
By Aimee Eaton
After 11 months of planning, meeting and debating, it seems a large-scale project to bring affordable work-force housing to the upper valley may have reached a potential dead end.
At the Feb. 6 Mt. Crested Butte town council meeting, the council voted 3-3 on whether to grant building and development company Gatesco a contract for the purchase of the land at the corner of Brush Creek and Highway 135.
The land is controlled jointly by Gunnison County, the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte Mountain Resort and was originally purchased for use as parking and/or affordable housing. In order to sell the property, three of the parties have to agree on the sale, and the town of Crested Butte decided on Feb. 5, 2018 that it would not support the contract.
The tie vote by the Mt. CB council is the equivalent of a “No” vote, and the contract, which would have supported the construction of a 240-unit housing development on the 14-acre parcel, will not move forward.
“A tie vote is difficult,” said Mt. Crested Butte mayor Todd Barnes. “It leaves it with no definitive decision by the council. We would have liked to see additional work toward a compromise for the project; I would have liked to see the whole thing moved up to Mt. CB — right here in my back yard and I offered that several times, but they were not interested.”
The Brush Creek project has been contentious since news of the plan went public last summer. Opponents claim the development is too dense and would negatively impact the character of the upper valley. Proponents argue it is an answer to the housing crisis and the density is a necessity both to meet the housing need and to make the project financially viable.
On top of that, the partners in the plan have regularly butted heads over the proposed development and how the agreement with Gatesco unfolded, as well as how it has progressed.
“We’ve asked for a reduction in density from the beginning and we feel it fell on deaf ears,” Barnes said to Gary Gates during the council meeting, which unlike many of the other meetings about Brush Creek, was not well attended. “We chose your proposal because it had transportation and no up-front money. I anticipated that the units would come down by a large percentage. We do not feel our voice has been heard with the commissioners.
“We anticipated being at a different juncture now, and probably so did you,” Barnes continued. “There’s a beautiful piece of property right here that I’ll offer you right now with everything that comes with it and the only people you need to deal with is us. We have a potential solution for you that our town welcomes.
“But we feel that in agreeing to the contract at this point, we lose control of the end product and if the result is negative, I’d had to live with something that didn’t come out well. That’s not something I want to live with.”
Barnes was not the only person to tie into the emotion surrounding the proposal.
John O’Neal, a spokesperson for Gatesco on the Brush Creek Project, implored the council not to make the effort to build affordable housing more difficult.
“We all know how difficult it is to get affordable housing built,” he said. “To get 150 units is almost impossible. It is difficult enough to get it done. Please don’t make this more difficult than it already is. A no vote is a vote against these workers.”
Crested Butte town council member Kent Cowherd was in the audience and made a plea in the opposite direction.
“The Crested Butte town council voted last night to oppose the contract,” he said. “The problems with the proposal outweigh the potential benefits. We’re looking at one project, one owner, one meter, one use — these are all rental units and an all rental community does not serve the purpose of creating community members that are invested in our community.
“This project is not compatible with the area where it is proposed,” Cowherd continued. “The density is incompatible and overwhelming within our valley. Change may be inevitable but we can be deliberate with it. We need to ask, will this progress serve a good purpose for this community or will it erode the aspects that make this place special? Let’s come together to come up with projects that work to bolster our community not erode it.”
Along with the issue of the project consisting solely of rental units, the council appeared most opposed to the number of units proposed and the lack of compromise and communication offered by Gatesco and Gunnison County.
“I commend you for your efforts,” council member Ken Lodovico told Gates during the meeting. “But I’m just not hearing a lot of support. I think that there’s been time for compromise and I haven’t seen much. A lot of the opponents aren’t being heard, and the plan isn’t showing they’re being listened to. I believe in compromise.”
Council member Janet Farmer focused on the issue of density.
“Density is a concern for me and I do get that you went down on the number of bedrooms originally called for in the plan and that helped some,” she said. “I am still very concerned about how many people the project is putting on that corner but I also know that we need workforce housing. I don’t know that we’re comfortable with whether the county is listening.
“I just have concerns over the way this has developed,” Farmer continued. “Approving the contract now, we lose any sort of traction with county. We’re in a catch 22. If we felt comfortable with how the LUR would move forward in negotiation with you, maybe we wouldn’t be so hung up tonight.”
Gates did not attempt to dissuade council members of their fears, but rather worked to explain why changes to the density of the project had not been made and further, why the density is necessary.
“Take the emotion out of it,” Gates told the council. “What is the need? Fess up to it. If the need is there and you just don’t want it here, be honest about that. What the north valley is doing is housing its workforce down south. By bringing the workforce back up here where it should be, you’re freeing up housing down there. You don’t need to build housing in Gunnison, you just need to get those people back up here.
“From a data standpoint you need to build the maximum possible, you need to build out these 17 acres out here. I challenge anyone to go out and build at $209 a square foot. This is a $44 million project and I’m putting up 35% equity. I’m going to be lucky if I can make a 2% return at this density. I’ve done all I can do. Unless the government wants to contribute, I can’t reduce the density. I need to be up front and honest on that. If the density is too much and that has been decided, I wish it had been decided before my project was picked. But if that is the way it is, I’ll just accept it and go on.”
Gates then implored the council to just make a decision.
“I played by the rules, I did everything you asked me to, and now six months later, you’re telling me you can’t decide,” he said. “This thing gets turned down I’ll just take my losses and go home. It will be very hard for anyone else to come in here and take this on.
“At the end of the day there are people who are just opposed to the 240 units and aren’t going to get past that,” he continued. “If that’s in your heart, then just go ahead and pass that.”
Barnes then asked if Gates would be interested in working with the town should they be able to pass a bond measure and contribute government funding to the project, which then could allow for lower density. Gates said firmly he is not interested in government money and the project would need to proceed with 240 rental units or not at all.
“Out in Skyland there is a plan to go from the 450 existing houses to 1000. The population will jump from 1600 to 4000 people,” he said. “No one is opposed to those $1-2 million homes, but these 240 units they can’t do. No one has an objection to those one-percenters building and bringing in way, way more than the number of people that would be in this place. Just be honest, you’re saying ‘We’ll take your labor but we don’t want you sleeping here.’”
“Unfortunately in a lot of mountain communities that’s just what happens,” Barnes replied.
“But you have the authority to say ‘No,’” said Gates. “That it doesn’t have to be like that.”
Farmer then seemed to shift from her initial argument, saying to Gates and the council, “I’m not going to make a lot of people in this room happy, but if we don’t do something soon we’re going to kill our own community. I keep hearing you say that if we tell you no, no one else is going to come in here and do this. I lean toward having 240 units at the corner instead of having nothing.”
Gates reiterated that “240 units really isn’t going to change” but he would love to continue to work with the partners and the planning commission to build workforce housing. At that point a vote was called.
Farmer, Danny D’Aquila, and Nicholas Kempin voted to approve the contract. Barnes, Lodovico and Lauren Daniel voted against the project. Without a tie-breaker the decision was a no.
And while Gates had sounded adamant during the meeting that should the contract not be approved he would be letting the project go, spokesperson O’Neal said afterward that was not to be the case.
The morning after the vote, O’Neal said, “I think we keep rolling. I believe there’s a lot of support out there. We let the process from the planning commission continue to evolve and move the project forward.”
According to Gunnison County Director of Community and Economic Development Cathie Pagano, the Land Use Change permit submitted by Gatesco is still active. “Unless, and until the application is withdrawn or consent from the property owner is withdrawn the application will continue to proceed through the land use process.”
A joint public hearing with the Gunnison County Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners focused on the proposed Brush Creek Road Workforce Housing Project is currently scheduled for Friday, February 16 at 10 a.m. The hearing will be conducted in the ballroom at the Lodge at Mountaineer Square in Mt. Crested Butte.