Sunday, December 9, 2018
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The Brush Creek elephant that still needs settled

It is my understanding one major goal of Gunnison County’s sketch plan review process is to analyze the broad concept of a development proposal and make sure it gets to a point where it is generally a comfortable fit for the county under its regulations and norms. Sure, there will always be lots of details to work out and those are addressed with conditions to make sure the big picture shapes itself into an appropriate end result. Right now, that big picture comfort level is missing at what appears to be the end of the Corner at Brush Creek sketch plan review process. At its core, that says something about the project.

Before moving a proposal to the detailed preliminary plan, the planners and commissioners should feel very comfortable that the proposal would fit into the county. The big picture is supposed to be settled in the sketch plan phase. This one is not. That is evidenced by the 64-page draft recommendation of approval with conditions by the county planning staff.

The current Brush Creek big picture is a drawing of an elephant in the room—and that elephant is density. Even a general opinion on that density issue was not addressed in the draft recommendation. Instead, the applicant is given a direction to “address” the density concerns brought up over the last year as part of any preliminary plan application. But come on: The number of people and buildings planned for that site is the overall paint from which everything else—intensity of uses, parking, traffic, neighborhood compatibility, water, sewer, impacts to town infrastructures, transit, pets, recreational fields—in the big picture emanates.

What should be the end result of the sketch plan remains unsettled at this point because the county has not provided any clear pathway for the applicant to pursue regarding the elephant in the room. It is time for the planning commissioners to move from the listening stage and start giving direction based on what they’ve heard. There has not really been much discussion among the planners on what they feel about the project and that has probably hamstrung the staff with their nebulous recommendation. The planners would normally state what they want to specifically see as part of the conditional approval and the staff would include it after a consensus is reached. Aside from a good suggestion by planner A.J. Cattles to force constructive compromise that was shot down by the county attorney, I haven’t seen that happen. That may be in part because the density issue drives everything and the applicant has said touching that could blow up the deal…a deal the county has indicated it wants to see happen at least in some form. But the job of the planners is to set parameters and the density of the proposal is far from what is compatible in the area.

Ideally, there may be a compromise sweet spot in this ongoing Brush Creek proposal—and frankly, we may be at the point where it has to be found or it has to start over. Finding that sweet spot as opposed to the sour acrimony this process has fomented was supposed to be a big part of the sketch plan review as I understood it. It was supposed to evolve into a generally satisfactory compromise plan in terms of the big picture and then a preliminary plan would flesh out details. The planners will look at the draft recommendation on Friday morning, August 3. They can simply tweak it or take on the harder challenge of dealing with density with more specificity. From there it will be sent to the three county commissioners for consideration. That could happen as early as Tuesday, August 7 where they could (or could not) make a final sketch plan decision.

If the planners include one condition that stated clearly to Gatesco that the density had to be adjusted in order to mitigate impacts that come with such growth, then that would be productive and actually more fair to the developer and most of the public at the north end of the valley who have voiced concerns. To keep the density issue a nebulous “significant issue” that has to be “addressed” at the next application is pretty much a punt.

That punt might get blocked anyway if a sweet spot compromise isn’t attained in short order. As it stands, both the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, two of the four stakeholders with an ownership position in the land, have voiced clear opposition to the plan “as drawn.” Gatesco has said they wouldn’t even make a preliminary plan application until three of the four (the county and CBMR are the other two) stakeholders support the project. As of now, two have spoken out strongly against it and both have voiced concerns over the density proposed for that high-profile property. The wild card or swing vote, Mt. Crested Butte, last week publicly verbalized they are unanimously opposed to the current plan. That matters.

If that remains the case, there are only two paths left. Either a compromise must be struck or we all get to start over. I’ve met with people on both sides and I would love to see compromise. It is a long shot given the friction but it is possible if both sides dig deep and change positional context. If all the partners in the property can find it in themselves to contribute to an affordable housing project on that land that results in significant workforce housing, the applicant, Gary Gates, could lower his development costs and build fewer units that make more sense from an overall planning perspective. If Gates can shift from not wanting to partner with a government agency, to trying out a new idea with broad community support, the common ground begins to overlap. Don’t think of it as “buying down density” but rather as working together in a productive public-private partnership that results in impactful housing at reasonable costs in today’s world. Does it not make sense for Gatesco to listen to the concerns of the nearby municipalities and try to understand the flaws they see in the project as drawn?

If both sides could move positions just a bit and get over the dysfunction—and I honestly don’t know if that is possible—something good could be approved out there. And if a way can be found that Gates picks up most of the development cost while making a long-term profit for him and his family, while workforce deed restrictions are in place forever, that is a success.

Most people understand you cannot build your way out of an affordable housing problem so we should decide to do what we can with full and proper planning. One side note: residents of Pitchfork, which the county uses as an example of a “nearby subdivision” with similar density to Brush Creek, call their subdivision “Shoehorn Heights.”

Until the “significant issue” of density is at least broadly settled, the big picture will continue to look more like a kindergarten watercolor painting than the clean lines of Agnes Martin. The Planning Commission and the county commissioners have a chance this week to truly address the elephant in the big picture by politely acknowledging the need for a change in density and then working toward common ground.

—Mark Reaman

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