Alternatives and hybrids?
By Mark Reaman
It appears the Crested Butte Town Council wanted to send a message on Monday to facilitator David Baumgarten that the town was ready to start over and work collaboratively to come up with an acceptable affordable housing plan to replace the current Gatesco, Inc. proposal for The Corner at Brush Creek. They made it clear they cannot support the plan as it is now presented.
That proposal, currently in the Gunnison County sketch plan review process, calls for 200 rental units, 80 of them free market, and 20 deed-restricted for-sale units. The town has consistently said that is simply too dense for the location and would have dramatic impacts on the town.
In an effort to “foster conversation” and see if any compromise between all the stakeholders can be attained, the Gunnison County commissioners charged county attorney David Baumgarten to try to facilitate a compromise. He has actively met with multiple stakeholders the last several weeks; in fact, the sketch plan public hearing has been continued until July 20. But Baumgarten indicated it might be postponed even further if the situation warranted. That was one of many frustrations expressed by the Town Council members at a work session held on Monday, July 2, at which Baumgarten provided an update and took questions.
He said while the first round of conversations expectedly took the form of a lot of “venting,” productive conversations were emerging with the hope of bringing together two or three stakeholders at once to have “good, strong, civil dialogue.” He asked if the town would be willing to consider “alternatives and hybrids” to the current plan and whether the town would consider participating in various ways including possibly extending “opportunities” (such as water and sewer lines) to the site.
He said the issue was more than a simple density number; it was “intensity,” which included all the ramifications that came with the development—density, amenities, ball fields, traffic and parking. “To my delight, everyone wants to continue these conversations,” Baumgarten said.
“I have to say this thing seems to be dragging on and on and on,” said Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt. “We took Mr. Gates at his word when this began that he needed the original 240 units and that was it. And then he came back with 220 units but got rid of the parking and then that was it. I’m not sure what he means or if he’s dealing in half-truths or whatever. I think it is only getting us stalled. The two towns, Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, are not comfortable signing a contract with Mr. Gates, so is this going to stretch out for many more months? We could have started over and gotten a lot further by now.”
Addressing Baumgarten, Schmidt said, “I continue to be frustrated by this and while you say you aren’t here to negotiate, it seems like you have been negotiating.”
“Let’s see a proposal that fits the county Land Use Resolution [LUR] guidelines. It’s not this,” said councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “Let’s start over. What we have now isn’t working. Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte really want to work collaboratively. Let’s all work on this together and start over.”
“It seems all the stakeholders are on relatively the same page, but where is Gatesco?” asked councilman Kent Cowherd. “Is he willing to come down in density?”
“I’ve found him willing to discuss ‘intensity’ with different hybrids and potential alternatives,” replied Baumgarten. “It is more complicated than a simple density number. I’ve found him to be listening and participating.”
“He has been rigid in his proposal as presented,” countered Cowherd.
“When you say ‘hybrids and alternatives,’ does that mean willing to consider different property for the plan or splitting the proposal between properties?” asked councilman Chris Haver.
“Both,” said Baumgarten.
“We would need a lot more background than the county has gathered on any proponent if we went that route in town,” said Schmidt.
“If he is stuck on a number it would be good for him to open his books so we can [better] understand where he is coming from,” said councilman Will Dujardin.
“The question to you as the town is, ‘Is there a hybrid or alternative where we can accomplish this?’ Is there an extension of services that can help accomplish this?” asked Baumgarten.
“Part of the issue is water and I’m worried about the water in Coal Creek right now,” said Schmidt. “We have water rights but do we have actual water? This year the creek is running at about the level it does in September.”
“It is hard to turn around and say let’s work together when we have been fighting a particular proposal that has gotten this far,” said Haver. “It is challenging. Maybe the town would have to put out a Request For Proposals and see how he responds. I feel there are opportunities down the road. Maybe a real market survey is the first step. The town is always willing to consider how to help a project, depending on what the need is and what the project is.”
“No matter what is out there, I know the town will continue to be the recreation center for this end of the valley,” added Schmidt. “We will continue to fund the Mountain Express and RTA to help pay for public transportation. So we know we will be participating.”
“We know there is a need for housing,” said councilman Paul Merck. “But no one wants another 700 people out there all at once. Can we break it up? Is there a hybrid that works? What can the town do? We want to see housing out there but how? It’s not necessarily fair to call this a terrible plan but it is hard for the town to swallow. If we could find a hybrid, that would be good.”
“So the council discussion has to be, what is its tolerance? What are acceptable alternatives? That requires a different conversation,” said Baumgarten who noted that it was easy to confuse, obstruct, delay and deny but this situation called for making something happen.
“This conversation has taken a year,” noted Mitchell. “I said last July, and I’ll say it again this July, that the basics like water availability are key. We have become so alienated that we can’t even seem to talk about water. Let’s start over and maybe we can have a positive relationship with Gary Gates.”
“Those conversations are open and being engaged,” assured Baumgarten. “They are so fundamental they need to be engaged.”
Schmidt said he might have an issue with Gates as a developer. “We asked some questions and he never really responded,” said Schmidt. “We took him at his word and his number was, for me, way too much. This is about housing and about community. If Mr. Gates is willing to answer some really hard questions, then we can start there.”
Baumgarten asked where the council wanted to proceed with the next conversation.
“I want him to know that if we’re trying to fit the Gary Gates business model into this particular site at the current number, it doesn’t work,” responded Haver. “It doesn’t fit the county LUR and it doesn’t fit the community. We are open to alternatives but my fear is we are spending a lot of time with one developer. I want to move forward. It might be time for a new RFP unless [Gates] has a new idea. I’m afraid we’ll be having this same conversation in another month. This meeting is frankly disappointing.”
“With too much change, we have a whole new proposal,” noted councilman Jackson Petito. “Not having the commissioners resolve this project slows it all down.”
“Taking off your facilitator hat, are you as an attorney comfortable with how this process is evolving?” asked Dujardin. “A lot of council members want a fresh process.”
“I think there are things we can do,” said Baumgarten. “Participating in extending utilities, for example, might be possible. I ask the town to explore what it can do.”
Schmidt said he was uncomfortable with the proposal being different from most other similar affordable housing private-public partnership projects in ski communities. He said having the public give up control of public property was very different. “Frankly, I have little faith in the current Gatesco project evolving,” he said.
Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald said she would meet with Baumgarten to go over the mechanisms used by the town to help facilitate affordable housing. She hoped it could broaden the discussion and perhaps some of the tools used by the town could be used by other government entities. She said some of the tools could perhaps be used by the council outside of town boundaries under the right circumstances.
“But Kent and Chris spoke of the frustration I share, especially with the process in the LUR,” MacDonald said. “It feels like there is a pent-up feeling from some that the town has the obligation to make the Gates proposal whole. I would again suggest the discussion be more broad.”
Haver said he had detailed conversations with Gates at the beginning of the project, including about possible water and sewer issues, and was told directly by Gates that alternatives and hybrids were not acceptable. “I am glad to hear he is interested now but I have a lot of questions and concerns,” Haver said.
Town planner Bob Nevins reminded everyone at the work session that a public review process over a specific proposal was taking place.
“The application before us is 220 units on 14 acres. I am very frustrated at this current process,” Nevins said. “We were asked to review and comment on the application and we have done that as requested under the county’s LUR review process. The bottom line is that we do not accept the proposal as presented and we offered many solid reasons why. Maybe the applicant should withdraw the plan so we can all talk about this. I don’t think we should be doing this type of discussion at all.”
Former town planner John Hess agreed. “It sure seems the conversation that the commissioners want David Baumgarten to have is missing the county commissioners,” he said. “They could make the decision to be here as part of the conversation. Right now it feels like you can have all these discussions and the commissioners can just decide on this current plan anyway. That is always hanging out there.”
“The county commissioners certainly would be a valuable partner in these discussions,” agreed Petito.
And then the discussion came to a somewhat abrupt end. No future meeting was planned but it definitely is not the end of the conversation. It is now up to Baumgartnen to, in his words, “translate” what he heard to the other parties and move forward from there.