But density question is the crux
By Mark Reaman and Kristy Acuff
Both sides were taken by surprise at the request by the Gunnison County commissioners and Planning Commission at Friday’s Brush Creek public hearing for the town of Crested Butte and Gatesco Inc. to get together before the end of the month to see if a compromise on the proposed housing project could be worked out. But both sides appear willing to dip their toe into the new pond and take advantage of the 30-day timeout and at least sit down to chat.
The Crested Butte Town Council expressed great frustration at its meeting Monday about the request.
Mayor Jim Schmidt described the county’s request as odd, “and was a surprise to everyone who was there. The question is, what do we do from here?”
Town manager Dara MacDonald circulated a memo to the council Monday that chronicled the town’s involvement with the county Land Use Resolution (LUR) review process and the town’s efforts to communicate with the Gatesco team about the proposal.
“The LUR process is clearly defined for sketch plan,” MacDonald said to council members. “The town advocated for public engagement many times before the county accepted the sketch plan application. Commissioner Messner’s questions about whether the town could provide financial incentives to buy down density at the site and make their financial model still work went wildly off the rails of the LUR process and our role as a review agency. We didn’t create the process. We repeatedly asked for public discussion before this process. The implication was that they put the review on hold for 30 days to give the town and Gatesco time to work out differences. But you are under no such obligation, and you also aren’t limited in discussion because of quasi-judicial concerns. You can do whatever you want. Maybe John [O’Neal] has some brilliant idea on how to move forward.”
“There are no brilliant ideas from me on how to proceed,” said Gatesco project manager John O’Neal at the Monday council meeting. “We were as surprised as all of you at the meeting on Friday. I do think that talking is a good thing. I’m not sure we are interested in another major public process. We’ve been in one of those and it has been a long and hard process. Maybe it would be better for us to sit down with Dara and Jim to see if there is a direction we can come up with.”
MacDonald came up with five options the council could consider. The first would be to do nothing. She said, “The town can take the reasonable position that they have attempted to engage both the MOA [Memorandum of Understanding] partners in hosting a public process to determine the best uses of the site. The town has also taken reasonable steps to engage the applicant who declined to continue discussions.”
The second option was to “offer to host a planning process.” MacDonald said that would take substantial time to convene and require multiple meetings.
Option three was to “host a community charrette,” to garner feedback from the community on how they would like to see the property developed. But MacDonald pointed out the commissioners aren’t able to consider alternative proposals in the sketch plan phase.
Option four, which gained some council support, was to hold a mediated discussion between the town, Gatesco and other stakeholders on “how the project could be modified to address community concerns.” MacDonald said under the LUR process, the county decision makers would be unable to participate due to the pending land use application.
The fifth option was for the town to acquire the land and take the lead on developing the property. That would remove the county from the position of being a landowner going through its review process.
“I want direction from the county on how to participate in the LUR process,” said councilman Chris Haver. “I don’t see how negotiations can happen in the LUR process. I’d love to work out something on that property but I’ve been told repeatedly by the developer that it will take 240, or now 220, units. I guess I would be interested in pursuing number four to see if there is any common ground.”
“We’ve been open to come to the table and see how this project could morph into something acceptable to the community,” said councilman Kent Cowherd. “It seemed like political posturing going on at that meeting and I don’t want us to go there.”
“The accusation was that the town was just no, no, no,” added mayor Jim Schmidt. “We have said no to the project as proposed.”
“They are tearing apart their own process. I’d prefer going with number one or five,” said councilmember Will Dujardin. “We don’t want it to go away but we want it smaller. I am frustrated with the county position.”
“The attitude and tone by the county and Gatesco toward the town is unfair since we are all partners in this,” said councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “I guess I’d prefer to go with number four. Of course we all want affordable housing out there. It is frustrating. We can also wait and see how the new owner of CBMR [Crested Butte Mountain Resort; Vail Resorts] feels about it.”
“It is the county’s decision,” said councilman Jackson Petito. “I don’t want to step outside our role as a referral agency and then invalidate our comments. My worry is if we deviate from the LUR rules we take ourselves out of the process. If the county gives us approval authority it might make sense but why would Gatesco negotiate with us when we are just a review agency?”
“I can’t say for sure but I think the team would consider more talks with Crested Butte,” said O’Neal. On Tuesday he said development team principal Gary Gates was open to a conversation with Crested Butte and other stakeholders.
“The elephant in the room will be density,” emphasized Cowherd. “So if they aren’t willing to address the substantial question of a reduction in density, then the discussion could be pretty short.”
“I think part of the issue is the county thinks we could supply the project with water and sewer,” said councilman Paul Merck.
The council directed town attorney John Sullivan to contact county attorney David Baumgarten for clarification on what the county wants from the town and Gatesco and how such talks apply to the LUR. Meanwhile, the Gunnison County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday and instructed Baumgarten to begin facilitating meetings with all interested parties, one at a time. Commissioners emphasized, however, that Baumgarten would act simply as a facilitator, without an agenda or expectation of outcomes.
In the ensuing discussion, county manager Matthew Birnie cautioned commissioners that some of the parties are “openly hostile to the project, including the town of Crested Butte, who I heard, talked last night at their council meeting about asking Vail to pull the rug out from the deal.” To which commissioner John Messner replied, “Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for the parties to get to the table and see what can be done.”
“We don’t want this to drag on for another six months,” said Birnie.
“Simply invite the interested parties to meet and tell them, this is the time frame, these are the constraints, do you want to meet or not?” added commissioner Phil Chamberland.
That apparently will happen—but to what end, no one is yet sure.