Monday, November 18, 2019

Councils seem open to new Brush Creek plan

October 31st deadline to strike a deal

By Mark Reaman

It appears that with a revised proposal from the developer limiting the number of units to 156, there is new life for the Corner at Brush Creek affordable housing proposal. The majority of north valley elected officials on the Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte town councils now seem to feel there is opportunity to strike a deal with Gatesco Inc.

A two-and-a-half hour joint work session on Tuesday, August 27 with the two councils, Gatesco representatives and the other two owners (Gunnison County and Crested Butte Mountain Resort) of the 14-acre property located at Brush Creek Road and Highway 135, ended with generally positive feelings that a deal was possible.

The two sides were grappling with the three conditions reached in a compromise between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte to have no more than 156 units on the property, provide two parking spaces per unit and set aside five acres for a future public use. Gatesco recently agreed to the unit count but wanted other concessions.

The mayors of both towns expressed some disappointment in the issue of trust between Gatesco and the towns or them personally, given past actions and statements. But most council representatives wanted to continue discussions with the developer in an effort to see if an agreement could be struck for the major workforce housing project.

They did bring up concerns over things such as adequate storage for recreational toys; how much land to set aside for a future public use; how many parking spaces to require; where to place a small transit center for buses in relation to the highway; and how to provide washers and dryers. Of course, everyone agreed that adequate water and sewer to service the project remained the prime concern.

The proposed adjustments

Gatesco attorney Kendall Burgemeister went over a revised proposal from Gatesco that included many changes from previous proposals. He pointed out the 156 units was a 35 percent reduction from the original plan for 240 units. “Getting to that number shows that Gary [Gates] really wants to make this project,” said Burgemeister.

He said the largest building was reduced in size from a 22-plex that was approximately 18,000 square feet and nearly 35 feet tall to a 12,500 square foot, 16-plex that stands 26 feet tall.

While the two towns had stated they wanted to see two parking spaces per unit, Burgemeister said the 156-unit Gatesco proposal has 226 bedrooms with 1.5 parking spaces per unit, or 234 spaces. “A project with 156 units, 1.5 parking spaces per unit, and a modest set aside [of land] for future uses will provide a project that is more livable for residents while still providing ample parking,” Burgemeister wrote in a memo to the property owners.

The developers are proposing a transit center with public restrooms similar to the bus stop building at the Crested Butte Four-way Stop.

Gatesco wants the project to be totally rental with no for-sale units but wants the “flexibility to add additional units in the future, contingent upon reaching an agreed-upon trigger that demonstrates a continued need for workforce housing (e.g. at least 90% occupancy for three years,)” the developers wrote.

Any new building would be subject to the county land use review. Of the 156 units, 77 would have deed restrictions tied to renters making less than 120 percent of the Area Median Income. For two people in the county, 120 percent AMI would be about $53,100. Rent and most utilities would be capped at 30 percent of income.

The other 79 units would have to be rented to locals who reside in the county, but income limits would not apply.

The new proposal shifts to a smaller unit mix, including 30 studios, 60 one-bedroom units, 60 two-bedroom units and six three-bedroom apartments.

Water, storage, bus…

Council representatives had a lot of questions and comments concerning potential population, rental caps, the ability to serve the lowest income workers and the financial feasibility of the project.

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt said one of his disappointments was that significant well testing hadn’t been performed, especially following a particularly dry year in 2018. “It seems that is one thing you’d really want to know,” he said.

“That expensive testing is required in the county’s preliminary plan process. That timeline is not uncommon,” said Burgemeister. “If we dig dry holes, then we don’t go forward and this is all academic.”

Gatesco has had a hydrologist monitoring an already-existing well on the property and very early testing has shown no issues. But Burgemeister emphasized that no comprehensive testing has been conducted and much more intensive water testing will be needed. “We haven’t seen any red flags. The aquifer levels recharge by snowmelt and so are at their lowest in May and at their fullest in mid-summer. We have seen no sign of initial long-term issues but again, this testing is not conclusive. More testing needs to be done,” said Burgemeister.

Storage areas were also a major concern.

“Where do people put their cars, bikes and skis and boats and all the other things people here have?” asked Crested Butte councilmember Laura Mitchell.

“Are you open to a shared storage space that residents could use?” added Mt. Crested Butte councilwoman Lauren Daniel. “The community has a lot of toys.”

“Our philosophy is that if you own a boat you can probably afford to live somewhere else or afford a storage unit,” said Burgemeister. ”I don’t have the exact numbers for size but there is a dedicated storage space for each unit for things like bikes or skis.”

“Your comment that someone who owns a boat shouldn’t be living there illustrates your lack of understanding about the community values,” said Mt. Crested Butte councilman Roman Kolodziej. “People here value outdoor recreation. Where do people in the studios and one-bedrooms put their things?”

“We will have space to accommodate things like skis and bikes,” responded Burgemeister. “I don’t know of any affordable housing that has parking for things like boats.”

Daniel said boats could mean equipment such as kayaks and standup paddleboards instead of big ski boats.

“People living here probably have three or four pairs of skis and at least two bikes,” added Kolodziej. “That’s what people here spend their money on.”

“I’m sorry you took my comment wrong,” said Burgemeister. “I’m very well aware of the values of the community and the recreational endeavors people like to pursue. Skis and bikes can be addressed but affordable housing depends on controlling costs.”

Mitchell, who is also chair of Mountain Express, suggested the bus stop be moved away from the northeast corner of the property and closer to the highway to make access easier for future bus service. She also pushed for the project tying into nearby sewer service, whether it was the East River Sanitation District or even the town of Crested Butte’s wastewater system.

Responding to a question from Daniel, Burgemeister said the project was not shifting to cater to seasonal short-term workers. He said it was more profitable to hold onto renters for as long as possible.

Mt. Crested Butte councilman Steve Morris asked the developer to consider ways to provide more housing for the workers making less than 50 percent of the AMI.

Comments. Lots of comments

Citizen Jim Starr has advocated for the project from the beginning. He said he wanted the officials to look for a way to say yes instead of looking for a way to say no.

“It seems it goes to the issue of trust between the towns and the proponent and the county,” Starr said. “But we need to open our eyes to the critical need we have for this housing right now,” he said. “We have a proposal that started at 240 units and is now at 156. If this doesn’t go through it will be three or four years before anything can be built out there. We need rental housing desperately and the time is now. I’m asking you to open your minds and don’t destroy a good project looking for the perfect project.”

Citizen David Leinsdorf, speaking for Friends of Brush Creek, urged the council representatives to stick to the compromise agreement it took them months to craft. “The 156 units with two parking spaces per unit and five acres being set aside is a good compromise that pleased no one. But this is not located in town so parking will be needed,” he said. “This is public property and as elected officials you carry a public trust. You need to make sure the public benefits of selling this property to Gary for $100,000 matches the public subsidies and costs to the taxpayers.”

Crested Butte Mountain Resort general manager Tim Baker said housing challenges are not unique to Crested Butte. “This is an unusual circumstance,” he admitted. “As a company we see the best results through partnerships. Long-term, the problem is not going away. It is a challenging dynamic to be navigating but we are happy the conversation is continuing.”

County manager Matthew Birnie said the county would be supportive of whatever compromise is reached between the developer and two towns. “I do think housing is in a state of crisis and we have an opportunity to do a project that is meaningful,” he said. “I don’t think it is doing any favors to hold on to five acres for future use when a use is obvious now.”

Birnie noted the county’s recently purchased 13-acre property across the highway from the Brush Creek project could likely be used for future parking if needed. “If this project doesn’t go forward  Jim [Starr] said nothing would be there for three or four years. I’d double or triple that number,” Birnie said. “I agree with Jim that there are no perfect projects and I appreciate that Mr. Gates is willing to go through the county’s arduous process.”

The town council reps all were pleased with the tenor of the meeting. “I think we’re a lot closer than we were,” noted Mt. Crested Butte councilman Michael Bacani.

Crested Butte councilman Will Dujardin wrote in a letter that he did not “believe an inability to reach specific consensus between our councils’ numbers on the parking spaces per unit and land set aside for future use vs. the Gatesco plan should be deal breakers in sending this to preliminary plan.”

Kolodziej said the issue was critical and they needed “to find a way to make this happen. I think we’re close.”

Crested Butte councilwoman Mallika Magner voiced her concerns with the proposal over density, storage areas, parking and transportation.

Mt. Crested Butte councilman Dwayne Lehnertz referred to the Housing Needs Assessment Survey and said this project would provide more rental housing than called for and he preferred to look at long-term home ownership opportunities to build a stronger community base.

Crested Butte councilwoman Candice Bradley disagreed. “There is a huge rental crisis and I’m part of it,” she said. “I’ll never own a house in the Gunnison Valley and my friends are in the same boat. We need to focus on this.”

Mitchell agreed on the need for rental housing and emphasized the need to address water and sewer issues but felt the conversation should continue.

Mt. Crested Butte councilman Nicholas Kempin said the meeting had a better tone than those in the past and he felt things were moving in a positive direction. Morris agreed that notable progress had been made with the meeting and the new proposal.

Crested Butte councilman Chris Haver appreciated some of the adjustments by Gatesco but said he would have a hard time approving an “open-ended” development. He also said nearby trail issues needed to be settled.

Daniel said she liked the idea of a mix of deed-restricted housing and more free market units dedicated to locals. She said the preliminary plan was the place to settle water and sewer issues and she “didn’t want to lose the opportunity to work with Gatesco. For me, I’d be willing to relook at the five-acre set aside.”

Crested Butte councilman Paul Merck said he hadn’t heard the group say “no” to the proposal but rather ask important questions. “I feel like we’re down to the little things to work out like parking and the bus stop location. I’m amazed we’ve gotten to where we are. We’ve made a lot of movement,” he said. “There will never be enough housing to support everyone who wants to live here. But with this one, I think we’re really close so let’s keep going.”

Mt. Crested Butte mayor Janet Farmer said she felt obligated to support her council so was willing to move ahead, but she had concerns. “One thing for me is that with the new breakdown in unit size it doesn’t seem geared enough toward families. And given the location, people will have cars, so we need two parking spaces per unit. The consensus of the group seems to be to keep working with Gatesco.”

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt was not a fan of that path. “Like Jim Starr said, it is a matter of trust and therein lies my problem,” he said. “I think Todd Barnes said it best when he said ‘If this is how you treat me in the courtship, I hate to see what it will be like when we’re married.’ I’m just disappointed by Gatesco for a number of reasons I’ve stated publicly. I think it is time to end this relationship. It matters who we’re in a partnership with. I’m not there.”

Farmer agreed with Schmidt that there had been some points of contention with Gatesco she did not appreciate and, for her, “damaged some of the trust she used to have with Gatesco. If we’re moving ahead we need to rebuild that trust.”

The councils will retreat to their individual meetings to further discuss the issue before reconvening for more negotiations with all the partners and the proponent. No future joint meeting was set.

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