Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Brush Creek melody

The public process is rarely fast. And it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be painfully slow, but every opportunity to consider every facet of a public deal such as The Corner at Brush Creek project should be explored. That makes for a long song at times or at least a long time to compose a good song. Sometimes the pace and attitude seems in harmony with all involved and other times it seems badly out of pitch. The Corner at Brush Creek public process has been mostly out of pitch but the county planning commission last week brought out a tuning fork and is experimenting with how to get it in sync. That’s worthwhile work. So, as frustrated as I have been at times with the process—particularly how the proposal jumped into the sketch plan without a collaborative public effort to flesh out major public concerns at the get-go—I was frustrated twice this week at public meetings. And both times my frustration was not with the plan but with those opposed to the initial proposal, people with whom I normally agree.

On Friday the Gunnison County Planning Commission did a stellar job of sifting through a year’s worth of information that was condensed into a 64-page draft recommendation for approval of the sketch plan with conditions, to address legitimate concerns. They lowered the maximum density, probably not as much as needed, but they decreased the cap from 220 units to 180, thus putting a ceiling on how many apartments will be allowed on the 14 acres. The detail of what that means as far as bedrooms and thus people is yet to be determined but it was a real step and they were clear the option remains open to lower that number further. That ceiling still is high, especially if Mt. Crested Butte has anything to say about it. The tuning fork will have to be used to get it truly back in tune but it was a note toward progress. The planners also addressed water and wastewater in general, design compatibility with the neighborhood, and an intercept parking lot designation near a transit center. They didn’t ask for some sort of playing field to be located on the site but that could and should be part of a final plan.

The applicant, Gatesco Inc. and Gary Gates, listened to the three-hour discussion. Based on what they’ve indicated in the last year, I felt there was a good chance that when the density issue came up and it was obvious three of the four planning commissioners wanted it decreased, the developer would stand up and say, “Thanks for the opportunity but we need 220 units at a minimum to make this deal work, so let’s all save some time and go home and you can start over.” That didn’t happen. The Gatesco team stayed for lunch and returned to the county commissioner meeting the following Tuesday, which tells me the 220 figure was softer than initially stated and the team can figure out appropriate compromises in the planning process—the long planning process. That’s another good note toward progress since more compromise is likely in order.

I’ve publicly stated my frustration with Gatesco and the county many times over the last year. But my frustration on Friday came in the numbers, as in the number of people who attended the planning meeting. Lord knows that room in the county courthouse has been standing-room-only more than once, and ballrooms in Mt. Crested Butte have been filled for hours with people lining up to voice opposition in front of the Planning Commission. But it was disappointing to see just a couple of the regulars in the extremely thin audience on Friday when the planners gave voice to a year’s worth of input. And what the regulars missed was a thoughtful, deliberate, detailed discussion based on more than 12 months of public input and discussion. To any of the project’s opponents, the Friday session would not have sounded like a finished song by any means but at least the beginning of a sweeter tune.

Acting Planning Commission chairman A.J. Cattles stated plainly on Friday that he felt the proposed density was too high and that it drove most every other issue associated with the plan. He said it wasn’t fair to anyone if Gatesco was given “a false hope” that the proposed density would make it through the next phase, so it was logical to determine at least a ballpark number of what the planners felt fit on that property.

Jack Diani said from the beginning he felt the number of units was too much for that particular parcel in that particular area. He said he’d wanted a 25 percent reduction from the original 240-unit proposal so he suggested a 180-unit cap. I was not surprised when Vince Rogalski, who I’ve known for 30 years, argued for a higher density but even he said he could go lower than the proposed 220 units.

The fourth commissioner, Molly Mugglestone, admitted to the struggle of trying to do something significant to address the affordable housing need in the county while respecting the neighborhood and north valley concerns. She stated plainly that the amount of strong opposition and types of concerns raised by the public had to be considered in an effort to allow some iteration of the project to move forward.

While I understand the public was not allowed to provide any more input, and it is none of their jobs to go to every single meeting, there is a certain respect that was missing when some “Friends” could have at least been there to see how their comments from the umpteen public hearings were utilized. And I believe they would have been pleased with the change in melody.

Tuesday, when Board of County Commissioners’ chair Phil Chamberland allowed some public comment, there were a few who continued the old tune declaring that the county was not adequately listening to the public and instead, continuing to advocate for a project that was off-key to the entire north end of the valley. Another charge that no change has been made to the plan through the process drew a smirk not just from the commissioners but from me. It’s certainly not yet in harmony but I trust that those comments were made because the people making them had missed the music of the Friday Planning Commission and were singing from an opera different from the one that was actually on stage. That too was disappointing.

The county process in this particular case has no doubt at times been frustrating and flat. But I will reiterate that there is opportunity to be had. The reality is that the county planners deliberated and adjusted the plan based on the public input. Those hours of public hearings had an influence. The adjustments aren’t finished. The commissioners on Tuesday listened to the nuts-and-bolts planners and added a few more points from a more broad political perspective. Chamberland promised the county would step up and contribute time and money to make that Brush Creek corridor better, especially if a project goes in. Others might have to do the same. The proponent did not walk off stage but was there on Tuesday morning, which seems an obvious sign he still wants to be part of this developing composition and the 220 was not set in stone after all.

Look, the melody is far from finished but if everyone remembers there is a chance for significant affordable housing with private money and public government support, it can be done. It has to include deep and detailed planning that addresses all the concerns and ramifications of whatever goes out there. So that means there’s still a lot of work. The towns and neighborhood reps understandably aren’t jumping for joy at the 180 number but they might see the song sheet has changed and it could open up a sweet spot down the line with continued strong arguments and further negotiations. It has to be attractive in the long-term to both the general public and private developer and there will need to be a true public-private partnership developed from all sides—that’s probably the hardest part given the 12-month history— but it can be done. My guess is Mt. Crested Butte council might want to see the next potential stanza relatively soon. They’ve been clear it should be less dense with more parking.

It is time to roll up the sleeves and see if the next verse of this ballad can be written to a tune that most everyone can sing.

—Mark Reaman

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