Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Debate over how to regulate demolitions in Crested Butte

Preservation versus overreach

By Mark Reaman

The difficult policy discussions on how to handle and regulate requests from people wanting to demolish a house in Crested Butte have started. A joint work session between the Town Council, members of the Board of Zoning and Architectural Review (BOZAR) and town staff held last month resulted in some tension, some gray areas and a little headway.

Issues ranging from the importance of preserving some of the town’s “quirkiness” to potential town government overreach, the impacts on local workers, climate and sustainability impacts of tearing down structures were all touched on.

“We are all looking for a way to protect what we have in town,” summarized BOZAR chair Eric Naughton halfway through the meeting. “In the past it has worked because people coming in have been willing to work with us. I think we will see an era when people are less wiling to work with us so we need to tighten this up. It won’t be easy.”

Crested Butte town planner Bob Nevins started the work session with a PowerPoint presentation on the history of how town handles demolitions and the impacts such action has. “A demolition is a much larger issue than just tearing down a building,” he said. “It has real and broad impacts on neighborhoods and on the community.”

The PowerPoint prepared by the staff indicated it was important to more clearly regulate demolitions of residential structures in town because of the several issues that would arise if the town lost some buildings constructed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when the ski resort was ramping up.

The town’s historical regulations maintain that there is a “Period of Significance” in Crested Butte that more strictly regulates buildings constructed in the mining era between 1880 and 1952.

Under the draft proposal, all houses built after 1952 would end up in the same review basket and not be burdened with a potential “historical designation” once they turn 50 years old. That age designation has caused owners of such aproperty to approach the town before a structure turns 50 to make sure they can renovate or even tear down the structure before it is considered “historical” in terms of demolition.

Under the draft proposal, any building owner could submit a demolition application to town that would be reviewed by BOZAR. If it met as-of-yet determined criteria, demolition could be allowed for buildings constructed after 1952 no matter the age. The owner would then submit a redevelopment plan application to BOZAR for another review of what would replace the existing structure.

The point is to make sure an owner doesn’t simply tear down an older, non-historic structure to put up a for-sale sign on a vacant lot.

Nevins said putting such a plan in place would not negatively impact property values and would “move the town forward.”

“Hopefully the process should identify structures that should be demolished,” said Nevins.

Possible reasons a building might meet the demolition criteria could include structural problems, bigger safety issues such as inadequate electric or plumbing systems or mold infestation, and whether it could be rehabilitated at a reasonable cost, recycled or relocated.

Town community development director Michael Yerman said the staff had tossed around the idea of going through the lengthy steps that would designate another “Period of Significance” for Crested Butte: a “recreation era” to complement the “mining era.” He said the aim was to basically preserve and rehabilitate as many single-family homes in Crested Butte as possible. But he too emphasized that if a building met certain criteria, it could be demolished.

“History in town didn’t stop in 1952,” pointed out BOZAR member Mary Ellis. “A lot of houses built after that are worthy of preserving. We need to be cautious, as we could be allowing the elimination of quite a bit of town that deserves preserving.”

It was pointed out that about 35 percent of the town’s current housing stock could be impacted by the ordinance, as those houses aren’t officially designated as “historic” and were primarily built between 1952 and 1999.

“We need to find a balance and move forward with actual standards concerning demolition,” said councilman Chris Haver.

Which green is most important?

“The greenest building is a building that is already built,” Yerman said.

Not everyone on the council agreed with that statement, particularly Haver, Paul Merck and Laura Mitchell. Mitchell, for example, said a newer, more energy-efficient home could be much greener and save renters significant money in utility bills. Merck said the cost that an owner would be forced to pay to renovate an old building as opposed to demolishing it and starting over should be considered as well.

Town manager Dara MacDonald said the “green building” formula came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and took into consideration every aspect of the demolition and rebuilding of a new home. “It could take many years, between 10 and 80 years, to see a payback,” said MacDonald.

Merck said the same type of payback consideration is expected when people switch from fossil fuel heating to renewable energy such as solar panels.

Yerman said there were two costs to the conversation. One is the cost to the homeowners and renters and the other was the cost to the environment. “I was talking about the cost to the environment,” Yerman said.

Nevins said the house at the corner of Third and Teocalli was a good example of that dual meaning. “The house didn’t meet the standards of how the owner wanted to live, but it was a perfectly fine house,” he said.

“I like the Period of Significance but to tell people who own their own property that was built after that time that they can’t tear it down seems too much,” said Mitchell.

“It allows homeowners to come forward and make their case,” said Nevins. “It tries to balance a lot of things.”

“As an environmentally conscious community there is a lot of waste to tear down a building,” added Yerman. “Are we concerned about that?”

“Yes but it isn’t an exact parallel,” said Merck. “It can be better with a new building.”

“To an extent but we need balance,” said Haver. “The regulations need to be objective and not subjective.”

“Unless it’s within the Period of Significance, we are grossly overstepping our government role,” said Mitchell.

“We are trying to not overstep and go too far,” responded Nevins. “If we have, slap us and give us direction of what you want.”

“Definitely let us know,” agreed Yerman. “We felt rehabilitation and preservation were part of the community values. If that’s not a priority, let us know. We’re not trying to force-feed a direction to council.”

“If 35 percent of our housing stock can be demolished tomorrow, will we be losing some of our funky nature?” asked councilwoman Mallika Magner.

“In reality, if you have even a partial demolition you lose much of it anyway,” said BOZAR board member Roxana Alvarez. “If you retrofit [an] existing home to fit our guidelines, it automatically loses some of the quirkiness of the resource. No matter what, it can all start to look the same.”

That seemed to concern most of the people in the discussion who wanted to maintain “quirkiness” in Crested Butte.

“One thing to remember is that BOZAR doesn’t look at the inside of a house or at cost,” BOZAR member David Russell reminded the council.

After the demo…

Nevins emphasized that the suggested process was two-fold. The first was to review whether or not a structure meets the standards to qualify for demolition and then making sure that a new building will meet or exceed the town’s energy-efficiency standards.

If a homeowner wants to replace a demolished building with a larger structure, the staff suggested it then should become either deed restricted for local, affordable housing or include an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU).

Local builder Jimmy Faust, who has built many duplexes in Crested Butte occupied by working locals, attended the meeting and raised several concerns.

He and his brother purchased the A-frame building at 729 Whiterock Ave. with the intent to demolish it and rebuild a duplex on the lot. He plans to live in one half of the duplex. “We slowed the project down at the request of the town before the current moratorium was put in place to give you time to come up with some regulations. Now I’m hearing I might have to deed-restrict one side and exceed building guidelines? That’s B.S. It’s wrong,” Faust said.

“It is important to recognize that it is important the Town Council is doing this,” said former councilman and architect Kent Cowherd. “I think this is an excellent first step. I don’t see it as overstepping government boundaries. It will allow the quirkiness to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”

“One thing we can say for sure is that our current demolition code stinks,” summarized Yerman.

Yerman told the council at the work session that he was hearing from the meeting participants that homeowner costs should be considered as part of the review process and wanted other detailed factors to consider in an ordinance.

Faust gave him a list of factors that could be considered to determine if a structure was worthy of demolition, ranging from the building containing asbestos or mold to whether the wiring was dangerous. “Some structure might look fine from the outside but it isn’t,” he explained.

“We are talking about our town and not just individual houses,” emphasized Magner.

What about the people?

“And don’t forget the human perspective,” added councilman Will Dujardin. “People we know live in some of the units like the A-frame that will be torn down. What we decide will help determine how they’ll be able to live here in the future.”

Yerman said that went to the question of whether the town should require some sort of deed restriction if the replacement house was built larger than what was torn down.

Dujardin said a simple deed restriction stating that a local would reside in the new house “would go a long way for me.”

Town staff will fine-tune some of the comments they heard at the joint meeting and offer the council some alternatives for how to regulate demolitions of houses in town.

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