As might be expected in a controversial issue, another kerfuffle has emerged with the Corner at Brush Creek proposal.
This one involves Gunnison county commissioner John Messner, who a few months ago reached out to some Crested Butte Town Council members to discuss the project, specifically the density issue and what might be acceptable to the town. It appears to me, after I spoke to Messner, that the intent was simply a politician being a politician and trying to solve an impasse. He said he was explaining to other local politicians how to perhaps better use the county process to be constructive. But it threw a wrinkle into that very process.
The tricky thing for some is that he did so after the project was already under county review. Some see that as a breach of the county’s review process. In the so-called quasi-judicial process, the county commissioners are expected to act as unbiased judges and not talk about the project outside of official hearings. John’s outreach on the issue apparently made the council members uncomfortable and the conversations were short and did not result in any deep conversation or solution on density.
John explained to me that while he did reach out to some Crested Butte representatives to discuss “process,” that was not a violation of the quasi-judicial LUR review. He wanted to let the councilmembers know that while the town is a referral agency it might be more helpful in the county sketch plan review to not just list what they didn’t like about the proposal but, as part of the process, to also include some ideas that would make it more acceptable to the town. For example, instead of just saying 240 units is too many for that site, he said the process could be helped and it might be more fruitful to include what density would be acceptable to the town.
Now, I’ve never been a fan of politicians having to suddenly be a judge and adhere to different rules that cut off elected representatives from the casual interaction of the people. At the same time, I understand such delineation. For me personally, I understand Messner’s move as an attempt to move a contentious process forward. I too have tried to find that common ground with both sides—but I’m not on the Planning Commission with ultimate decision authority.
Basically at a deeper level, it appears John was sort of doing what many people in the upper end of the valley asked the county to do in the first place—hold conversations to talk about the general proposal—before putting it into the official review pipeline. The idea being that the big picture faults of the project could be identified and discussed and the development polished before going to the Planning Commission. Thus, in theory, the venture would have an easier time of being approved with broad community vetting and support. But the county representatives rejected that idea at the start and insisted on using the formal LUR process. And here we are with a third public hearing continuation slated for early May after a couple of long and contentious gatherings already.
I am sure there will be some who view John’s actions with a cocked eyebrow. Some may want him to recuse himself from the ongoing process. That is up to him and his fellow commissioners and planners. If he had called to advocate that the council jump on board the Brush Creek train, it would be one thing, but trying to get the town to include some specific mitigation ideas as a referral agency seems an attempt to move a process forward—even if the process he insisted on using was pretty restrictive.
I’ve suggested before and will do so again: Perhaps the best thing to do is for the county commissioners to utilize their authority and call a timeout from the current formal review process and start talking big picture again in a political sense.
Messner’s instinct was not wrong to pinpoint density as a prime issue early in the review process. The ramifications of that density have always been the sticking point with this particular project. Taking a timeout could be fruitful for all involved if there is common ground that can be reached on this idea of affordable workforce housing on this particular site. I bet there is such common ground if given a broader opportunity to find it.