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Brush Creek proposal continues to bring out the public for comment

Density and location remain top concerns

By Mark Reaman & Kristy Acuff

While some elements of the proposed Brush Creek affordable housing project were recently changed, the concerns of the public remained basically the same at last week’s continuation of the sketch plan public hearing.

Density, location, compatibility with the nearby neighborhoods, and lack of interest in alternatives were all brought up several times at the five-and-a-half hour hearing held on March 2 in Mt. Crested Butte. The public hearing was again continued to April 6 by the Planning Commission. That meeting will be held in Gunnison at 1 p.m. in the commissioners’ room of the courthouse.

The Friday hearing took place in the Mountaineer Square ballroom. While fewer people showed up than at the February 16 meeting, there were still about 100 citizens in the room at the start of the meeting. The majority spoke in opposition to the project as proposed.

The Gatesco development team started the meeting presenting its changes to the plan to the county Planning Commission. The revisions included ownership potential for 20 units that could include inexpensive owner financing; a reduction in units from 240 to 220 (with 140 holding a deed restriction tied to income) and a reduction in the number of bedrooms to 341; the promise of a preference to rent all the units, including the free market apartments, to those that have a tie to the Gunnison valley; removing the park-and-ride parcel from the Gatesco development and instead leaving it up to Gunnison County to manage a bus terminal and associated parking on the site; not taking ownership of the parcel until after county LUR approval; and the guarantee that leases would be for a minimum of six months.

“These are interesting revisions,” commented Gunnison County commissioner Phil Chamberland. “I appreciate the ownership opportunity. I’m just soaking it all in. It is an interesting twist to the plan.”

Gatesco principal Gary Gates said the for-sale units would be sold generally for about 25 percent less than similar two- and three-bedroom townhouses, such as those in the Pitchfork subdivision. While details have not been ironed out, there would be caps on the appreciation allowed.

The for-sale townhome units would form a homeowners association (HOA) that would work with the rental company that controls the other 200 units. Gatesco attorney Kendall Burgemeister indicated that could come into play with the utility situation.

“It is feasible to create a master association whose members would include the apartment property owner and the townhome owners, and have this association assume ownership of the water and wastewater facilities. We are not proposing to have the townhome association assume ownership of a system that would serve both the townhomes and the apartments,” he explained. “It would either be the master association or the County (under the LUR regulations). I don’t think the applicant cares which option is chosen. Either way, the developer pays for the design and construction and the users pay the cost of operation based on a rate structure approved by the county commissioners. Either way, the system is regulated by the State and must have a certified operator.”

Residential parking is being proposed at a little over one space per bedroom. Burgemeister said that given the number of efficiency (36) and one-bedroom units (86), that should be adequate parking.

County community development director Cathie Pagano said a traffic and parking analysis would be required if the proposal makes it to the reviews’ preliminary plan phase.

Pagano also addressed questions raised at the last meeting about several issues including the county’s release of deed restrictions on property in the past (good intentions that didn’t work out); the concept of density and compatibility in that location (staff feels it is appropriate); the need for an overall housing master plan (a work in progress); the perception of setting a new precedent with such a development on that parcel (not without a similar essential housing element); and water and sewer concerns (still under review).

Gatesco architect Andrew Hadley presented some conceptual slides that attempted to show renderings of the buildings on the parcel but included renderings of giant trees that for some reason shielded some of the building concepts.

“The trees were distracting but I appreciate the slides that give a visual rendering nevertheless,” said county commissioner John Messner.

Messner went on to say that he too appreciated the developer’s attempts to address some of the concerns voiced by the public and he expected continued concern over the density. “I understand the economic feasibility piece as well. One reason Gatesco was chosen out of the RFP [Request for Proposal] process was that little public money was involved with the development. So I understand the park-and-ride piece.

“I feel there is still opportunity for a reduction in density with some concessions and I encourage Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte to look at some possible help with infrastructure and costs for a reduction in density,” Messner continued. “I encourage the applicant to talk to the town of Crested Butte to consider water and sewer opportunities.”

The public had an opportunity to comment to the planning commission and county commissioners and citizens lined up to speak at a podium in the middle of the ballroom.

“It seems that if Gatesco chose to do a smaller project they could connect to the town or East River water and sewer facilities,” stated Laura Irwin. “It is the size of the proposal, not an innate inability to connect, that is the problem. If the density were smaller there would be something to talk about. Please consider other options with affordable housing throughout the valley.”

Attorney David Leinsdorf, who represents the Friends of Brush Creek organization, gave a lengthy interpretation of how compatibility is supposed to be considered in the LUR (Land Use Resolution) review process.

“The staff report was very disappointing in that it misrepresents the definition of compatible in the LUR regulations,” Leinsdorf said. “It left out three critical words: ‘In an Area.’ Compatibility is a principle issue of the LUR. A good cause like essential housing cannot justify approving an incompatible project. This is much more dense than any other nearby neighborhood. Something like 80 units makes much more sense. This project has been a moving target so please give people several weeks to analyze this new proposal that came about in the last 36 hours.”

Greg Bookwalter said it seemed to him and others that “some decisions have already been made to push this project forward.”

Wouter van Tiel echoed the “dubious” feel of some of the process with the Corner at Brush Creek. “We all need to take a step back and take time. There are so many better ways to look at the bigger picture.”

Jim Frank brought up concerns over the wastewater treatment facility that he said could end up being taken over by the county. He also asked if the county’s linkage fees would be waived for the project.

Barney Debnam emphasized the need for such developments to be truly “walkable.” He said placing such a dense development in a population center like Mt. Crested Butte, Crested Butte or Crested Butte South would work in that regard. “To me it is about walking and that’s why I’m opposed to this site and that density. Look at alternate proposals.”

Tom Hamilton remarked that the 20-unit reduction in the number of apartments was a “small reduction in the overall density. I oppose the size and density of the plan and encourage a strategic plan for housing in the valley.”

Grant Bremer noted that public comments have been clear that proceeding with this development could result in the withdrawal of some current nearby recreational easements including the Deli Trail, the river takeout at the Slate River at the north corner of Highway 135 and Brush Creek Road, and the Nordic trails that cross Bob Schutt’s property in conjunction with the Crested Butte town ranch.

Bremer also expressed concern about the project going bankrupt in an economic downturn, given the small 2 percent margin Gates said he expects once it is operating.

Burgemeister responded to some of the concerns and suggestions, reemphasizing that the Mt. Crested Butte land offer was theoretical at this point with “a lot of unknowns. To think that is the white knight ready to solve the issue is wrong. That 17-acre parcel is much farther away than Brush Creek from Clark’s Market and the hockey rink. It doesn’t solve the problem.”

Burgemeister said connecting to Crested Butte water and sewer facilities would not be cheap and augmentation costs involved with East River Sanitation District are also expensive and not conducive to keeping housing affordable. He said there is no definitive number for what would be compatible for the property and noted that even 80 units would be denser than the immediate neighborhoods. “The LUR talks about taking measures to mitigate density.”

Messner again chipped in with a big picture analysis. “I acknowledge there are other opportunities for workforce housing to be developed up and down the valley,” he said. “It is important to note that an analysis done in the fall indicated that if every piece of public land in the northern valley was used for affordable housing units it would provide about 400 units. The Needs Assessment report calls for more than 400 units. I appreciate the Mt. Crested Butte parcel being brought up but it is not part of this LUR application. I encourage movement with that piece of property and also encourage the town of Crested Butte to allow more density in the town. For this, the focus should be on this project to evolve a project that can significantly address affordable housing for the north end of the valley.”

To end the morning portion of the meeting there was support for the proposal.

Bev Fitzpatrick said there was a “critical need” for workforce housing. She supported the project and referenced the loss of the 25- to 35-year-olds from the valley. “That segment of the community is missing and that impacts many things for the community. Resistance to development is also not new here,” she said. “There was a fierce resistance when Jack Blanton proposed a golf course at the base of the mountain but I am glad he continued with his idea. The only way to make housing more affordable is through density and rentals.”

Kate Harrington echoed her support. She grew up in Crested Butte and is now married with a child. Harrington described her rental situation as tentative. “I am one of the people this project will help,” she said. “Wages do not keep up and meet the rental market demands. I worry and wonder where we will go if we lose our current place. Everyone I know is impacted by unstable housing. The issue won’t be solved by this project alone but I believe this project on this land is a very unique opportunity. I believe we can come together and solve this.”

The afternoon began when Norman Eastwood presented commissioners and Planning Commission members with a packet of photos documenting decay and disrepair at 17 of Gatesco’s Houston apartment complexes. Eastwood travelled to Houston and took the photos himself, noting that all of the properties were in various states of neglect.

“I saw trash everywhere, broken windows covered with cardboard, parking lots that need resurfacing, rotten wood. This is not an owner who takes pride in his investments. I would imagine that Gary Gates made more than 2 percent profit on these Houston properties and yet, even with that income, he neglects the properties,” said Eastwood.

“Given that he says he will only make a 2 percent return on the Corner at Brush Creek project,” Eastwood continued, ”I can only imagine that it will very quickly fall into disrepair, as his other properties have done. The density of the project is a huge issue for me but more important is the track record of the developer. I urge you to carefully vet your potential partner, Gary Gates, as I have done.”

Gary Gates defended himself against the claims that he neglects his buildings by saying, “I own 6,500 Class C apartments and I am proud of my business. I suppose you can drive through and take some bad pictures but I am proud of my business and my properties.”

Former Mt. Crested Butte mayor Dave Clayton noted that without significant tax increases to fund affordable housing, the towns cannot afford to fill the housing needs. “This is a project that is basically a privately funded, free enterprise, using his own funds. And while there are issues with density and size of this proposal, if we don’t build housing through free enterprise, then the towns are going to have to do it and they can’t accomplish that without raising taxes,” said Clayton. “According to the housing needs assessment, we need to build the equivalent of eight more Anthracite Places at a cost of anywhere from $48 million to $100 million, and who is going to pay for that?”

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt reiterated that the town had done more than any other entity to develop affordable housing in the valley. He said while the town was a party to the RFP process that chose Gatesco, perhaps it should have raised the density question sooner.

“At the time of the land transfer, CBMR was predicting 650,000 annual skier days and that is why we were planning for a parking-transfer station at the Brush Creek corner,” he said. “With regard to the town’s initial response to the RFP from Gatesco, maybe it was the town’s partial fault that we were not tougher on density at that time. Should we have been tougher about the 240 number at that time? Looking back, I would say yes, we should have been tougher.

“As far as the town’s affordable housing projects,” he continued. “We are very proud of what we have done but we have not done enough and we will probably never catch up. In town currently, we have 156 rental and 94 owned affordable housing properties. The town of CB is the most dense municipality in the county and when people talk about getting rid of Gothic or Pitsker fields to put up affordable housing, we would then lose field space and that is just as important to our town. We must not lose site of the big picture.”

The hearing ended with the Gatesco team addressing the questions and concerns raised by the public in attendance. Hadley argued that the size of the buildings in the proposed project is within the scope of the current buildings in Skyland. “The Corner at Brush Creek has no building that is more than 35 feet tall,” said Hadley. “Skyland homes are allowed to be 30 feet tall and if they have a 12 by 12 pitch roof, they get another 10 feet of height, so that means 40 feet total. Density, I think, is the perceived size of something and through good architectural design, you can play with that. Our design proposes buildings within the size limits of current Skyland properties.”

The public hearing will continue on April 6 in Gunnison.

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