Thursday, August 22, 2019

Brush Creek “timeout” spurs talk and confusion

“Whatever the stakeholders want to bring into the process they are encouraged to do so.”

By Alissa Johnson

The clock is ticking on a “timeout” intended to breathe new life into discussions related to the proposed The Corner at Brush Creek housing development—and so far it’s not clear where, if anywhere, that timeout will lead. County attorney David Baumgarten met with the Crested Butte Town Council on Monday to encourage open discussion, and was met by general confusion and some frustration.

The 220-unit development, proposed by Gatesco, Inc. near the intersection of Highway 135 and Brush Creek Road, has been contentious for some time. The Crested Butte council in particular has taken issue with the density of the project. Yet earlier this month, the Gunnison County Planning Commission surprised many of the parties involved by postponing its vote on the sketch plan proposal until June 29.

Shortly thereafter, the Board of County Commissioners directed Baumgarten to meet with all interested parties, one at a time, in an attempt to foster more open discussion. So far, he has met with representatives from Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and Gatesco, among others. And while discussion is being fostered, so is confusion over their purpose and the process.

On Monday, Baumgarten met with the Crested Butte council at the request of mayor Jim Schmidt, and began by reiterating why he had embarked on these meetings.

“The Board of County Commissioners has directed me to meet with key stakeholders, the intent of which as I understand it is to encourage further conversation regarding affordable housing and potential approaches we may take individually and collectively,” Baumgarten said.

He referred to it as a form of mediation, meeting with each party several times to open up the discussion. And so far, he said, there have been some themes in the conversations.

First, however “daunting, complex and fraught” the issue of affordable housing, all parties remain committed to engaging in it. Second, despite the tension that arises from the complexity of the issue, all parties are committed to further dialogue. Third, he sees continued confidence in the various processes, including the Land Use Resolution (LUR) guiding the review of the proposal. And finally—perhaps most clearly, Baumgarten said—relationships are strained.

He suggested three areas for potential discussion: overarching relationships between the parties; looking for what he called “longitudinal” potential solutions to the situation; and “third and only third,” encouraging dialogue among the stakeholders. Councilmembers, however, sought clarification.

“If you’re expanding that conversation about affordable housing, are you looking at other solutions to this particular piece of property?” Schmidt asked.

“In my own experience,” Baumgarten replied, “when we are struggling with a particular issue, a particular location or a particular proposal, that conversation can become ingrown. One of the ways of approaching solution finding is to try to expand what the conversation may be.”

For example, he suggested, if one question is about the density of the project, the conversation could be expanded by asking if there are other suitable locations. That didn’t sit well with councilmember Will Dujardin, who feels the process is taking a long time while people are actively looking for places to live.

“If we start talking about other properties and other ideas, that would require a restart,” Dujardin said.

“It may start other processes. The intent is to spark conversations,” Baumgarten responded.

Councilmember Jackson Petito also jumped in. “One of our worries here … is that it is an up or down vote. [The Planning Commission] is voting yes or no on the proposal in front of them.”

“Actually, not,” Baumgarten said. “The process is very assiduously crafted so people can suggest alternatives and it is absolutely that type of conversation we’re trying to spark.”

That contradicted what Schmidt and councilmember Chris Haver had come to expect. Schmidt felt that, from the beginning of the review process, council was asked to speak only to the proposed project.

And according to Haver, “Anytime I brought up the possibility of other land, of other projects … it was clearly told to me that no, we are only talking about this project on this property and within these parameters.”

As the council continued to air grievances, Baumgarten continued to reiterate this as an opportunity to take a step back from the process and expand the conversation.

“Whatever the stakeholders want to bring into the process, they are encouraged to do so,” he said.

“Then let’s have a public conversation,” Haver said. “Let’s get all the entities together and discuss the possibilities.”

“I’m glad you’re here inviting this conversation,” added councilmember Kent Cowherd. “But similar to Chris, I feel like this should have happened at the very beginning … [when those discussions] could have grown into a proposal that could be approved under the LUR. But to come back in the eleventh hour and say let’s have a conversation? I don’t understand.”

Other grievances ranged from a parcel of land in Mt. Crested Butte that has been mentioned as a potential site for development but not explored, to Gatesco being treated like an equal stakeholder.

“I would like to remind all of us that we’re the stakeholders in this and [Gatesco’s] Gary Gates is external,” councilmember Laura Mitchell said. “We’re working on behalf of everyone, we own this for everyone.”

Eventually, town manager Dara MacDonald tried to gauge the council’s interest in further discussion. “If there is an opportunity to participate in some sort of dialogue, do you want to do it? And would you want it to be in a public forum or do you want to go back and consider delegating people to do that?”

The council did express interest, but with only 11 days left until the next Planning Commission meeting, Jackson Petito in particular wondered how that could happen in such a short time—particularly with public input.

As with many council discussions on this topic, the conversation eventually landed on their core issues with the proposal: the density of the project, the perception that it is Gatesco’s way or the highway, and a recent suggestion from county commissioner John Messner that perhaps the town of Crested Butte could provide water and sewer to the project. Messner suggested that might reduce costs and in turn require fewer units, but that sounded like a “buy down” to some councilmembers.

Attorney Kendall Burgemeister, who attended the meeting on behalf of Gatesco, did counter some of their perceptions of Gary Gates, owner of Gatesco. “Certainly at times Gary has said we have to have a certain density to make it work. I have similarly heard comments where the perception is that he is not flexible and has no willingness to communicate… He has spent countless hours meeting one on one with people. He’s never turned down a meeting.”

He also indicated that when it comes to these current discussions, “We are willing to sit down and talk with anyone who is willing to sit down and talk with us.”

Attorney David Leinsdorf, who represents the “Friends of Brush Creek” in this matter, spoke as a private citizen, urging the council to make sure any discussion was public.

Finally, town manager MacDonald again tried to gauge next steps. “My first question: Is there interest in a dialogue that involves Gatesco stakeholders, and can you put animosity aside? I still hear it tonight but you have to put that aside to continue dialogue in good faith,” she said.

“Perhaps we wait until we hear what Mt. Crested Butte is going to do,” Schmidt said, referring to a pending meeting at which the Mt. Crested Butte Town Council would discuss the same topic.

Town attorney Barbara Green pointed out that if Mt. Crested Butte was also open to discussions, they could submit a formal request to delay the June 29 meeting. And that’s where the discussion ended: Wait and see.

See page 9 for latest Mt. CB discussion about the corner at Brush Creek.

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