Neighbors opposed, mayor thinks outside the parking lines
By Aimee Eaton
It took three hours last week for the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council to decide it was not yet ready to vote on whether a 146-space parking lot should be built in town above the intersection of Treasury and Emmons Roads.
The discussion, which included about 55 minutes of public comment, focused on: whether a parking lot was necessary; whether this parking lot in this location was necessary; the safety of the proposed lot; the integrity of the council; the character of the neighborhood; the purchase agreement between the town and the sellers of the land on which the parking lot is to be built; and what else could be done with the land if it was not used for parking.
The issue of the parking lot has been in the council’s purview since April 2017, when the town entered into contract with the owners of the Nordic Inn for purchase of the property. The cost of the parcel to the town was slated at about $1 million, with the purpose set as a parking lot.
What made the contract and the parking lot deal stand out was a concurrent plan by the Nordic Inn to renovate and expand its property. The parking lot contract came with a stipulation that if the town failed to approve the Planned Unit Development proposal for the Nordic Inn, which included the parking lot, it would mean the termination of the contract. It seemed odd to some that the town was taking part in a public-private deal, over which it ultimately would make the decision on whether to proceed.
Steve Mabry lives on Treasury Road in Mt. Crested Butte, and was in attendance at last week’s council meeting. He started his statement about the parking lot by saying he was not against the development of the Nordic Inn, but saw the parking lot and the manner in which it was coming to light as improper for a municipality.
“It has been an awkward process,” he said. “To have the parking lot lumped in with PUD, I felt like it was inappropriate, quite frankly.”
Michael Blunck, another Treasury Road resident, asked the council how it could be supportive of spending millions in public money for a project for which there had been no public support.
“Why are we thinking of spending $2.5 million for something the residents of the town aren’t really interested in pursuing?” he asked. “I’m sure that last week’s announcement of the Epic pass has led some in this room to believe that we need more parking. That will only be true if we have another epic winter. Then it will be a private entity creating more traffic, so maybe it’s the private entity’s job to fix its own parking problem,” continued Blunck.
Part-time resident Rich Saperstein took on the project as a whole, but focused heavily on what the parking lot would mean for the character of the community.
“Nothing has incensed me more than what is happening right now,” he said. “We’re the oldest community in the town and this council is going to vote tonight on whether to put a parking structure in our residential area. No plan shows exterior dimensions of the parking lot. My calculations have this as 48,000 square feet; it’s the same as a football field. Forty-eight thousand square feet of concrete. Thirty times the average footprint of our homes. You’re going to vote tonight to put a football-sized field of concrete in our backyard. We’re the oldest community in town and we don’t deserve to have a football field of concrete in our backyard.
“It violates any spirit of architectural design,” Saperstein continued. “We want a multi-family community, we don’t want a parking lot. Economics don’t support this deal. We’re in a slow decay. The ski industry has passed us by. What really surprised me most about this transaction is why isn’t there a public-private partnership. Why wasn’t there a negotiation with the mountain to secure some sort of partnership? I’m just not sure of the structure of this transaction. The fact that the town contributed $50,000 for the application but isn’t named on the application and remains an integral part of the deal is surprising to me. It sets a bad precedent. I request you vote no. Vote to find a better option. There are better options out there if parking is one of those things you feel you need to solve for.”
After public comment, town community development director Carlos Velado reminded the council that this was the second time it had seen the PUD document, and that it had passed with the Planning Commission in a 4-3 vote. Aaron Huckstep, the attorney representing the Nordic Inn and its owners, Pearls Management LLC, then spoke to the council.
“Now is the time to act,” Huckstep said. “The only thing worse than having a parking problem in a ski town is not having a parking problem. No one is going to come in and tell you to go buy a parking lot. They’ll tell you to build a rec center, but part of your role is to look at what the town needs now and in the future.
“We all ought to recognize that folks don’t like the location of this parking lot,” Huckstep continued. “You have been supportive of this parking lot from the beginning… I think you have a fundamental question: Do you act now to address a public need that the neighbors don’t believe exists but everyone else does, or do you kick the can down the road?”
Council member Danny D’Aquilla said he would not be supporting the PUD because he felt his concerns about the construction of the parking lot and necessary retrofits to the road had been ignored by the Pearls.
“At the last meeting I was very specific. The traffic study says turn lanes could be put in place,” he said. “We talked about filling in culvert and creating turn lanes. That’s not included in what’s being asked for us to approve, and I can’t approve this because it’s not in there. I also asked for the entrance to be there in the cul-de-sac and that’s not there either.”
Velado replied to D’Aquilla’s concerns. “What I recall was the turn lane was a recommendation of the Planning Commission,” he said. “It was determined that it was unattainable at this time due to conditions.”
D’Aquilla said that wasn’t good enough. “My recommendation tonight is to send it back to the Planning Commission and have it come into line better.”
Mt. Crested Butte mayor Todd Barnes then waded into the fray.
“From the public, this is obviously not a necessity,” he said. “However, they do want to see the Nordic succeed. In order for Nordic to succeed, that land needs to be bought. It makes sense that buying that land with Downtown Development Authority funds is a good idea. If the town buys it at this moment, a couple acres for a million seems like a good deal to me.
“I don’t want to say no to this project. I want to see the PUD succeed,” Barnes continued. “But does it have to be a parking lot? There’s a lot of negativity here and we’re tasked with making a decision. We could wait a few months when the snow melts and go walk the property, see what the character of the neighborhood really is … I would seek the middle ground here rather than having such division.”
Huckstep argued that because the original contract between the town and Pearls included a clause for the town to purchase back the parking lot and expand the Nordic Inn over the spaces, the Pearls might not be interested in selling if the land were not used for parking. It would require further discussion, he said.
“Throughout this process two things have become very clear,” Huckstep added. “No one has a problem with development. Second is nobody likes the parking lot. What I’m hearing you say is, let’s purchase the land now but take our time figuring out what to do with it. I would ask all of you to think about asking your staff to talk with the applicant about getting rid of the buy-back option. My client does not feel like the convoluted nature of this process has been their fault. We know there is a lot of angst over the parking lot. I’m trying to find a middle ground that allows my client to move forward and you to move forward.”
Mayor Barnes then suggested that further conversation beyond the night’s meeting was appropriate, to which Huckstep responded that it seemed like the town wanted unfettered control of the property. The council then voted unanimously to continue the discussion at its May 15 meeting.