“This is not a popularity contest”
By Kendra Walker
Tensions were high between Mt. Crested Butte residents and Hunter Ridge applicant representatives during the Gunnison County Planning Commission’s September 6 public hearing for the Hunter Ridge major impact sketch plan.
The Mt. Crested Butte Town Council initially denied the project, which is why the sketch plan is now under review by the county.
The proposed project would develop a 10-acre parcel located at 45 Hunter Hill Road adjacent to the town of Mt. Crested Butte. The 8,500-square-foot subdivision would include four triplexes and four single-family homes. Access would come from Hunter Hill Road. Two of the triplex units are proposed to be deed-restricted as workforce housing.
Project attorney Mike Dawson and applicant Jamie Watt walked commissioners through the sketch plan, explaining the layout of the lots. Intended to reflect the neighborhood, the triplexes will be located on the north end closer to existing multi-family homes and the single-family homes will adjoin other single-family homes nearby. “The idea was to try to transition between those two,” said Dawson.
Dawson also explained that snow storage has been incorporated, the Crested Butte Fire Protection District has signed off on the road plan and all of the structures would be above the avalanche zone on the hill. “It’s not uncommon within the town of Mt. Crested Butte to have structures be built above the avalanche zone,” he said. “The closest building on the project is no less than 100 feet away from all the avalanche zones.”
The project proposes 40 percent open space, more than the county standard of 30 percent.
According to the application, the property would be serviced by the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, which serves areas adjacent to Mt. Crested Butte. The Water and San board would review the project and engineering to determine approval.
Commissioners received a flood of public comments prior to the meeting inquiring about engineering plans, geological reports, road analysis and traffic studies. County director of Planning and Development Cathie Pagano addressed the engineering and geotechnical analysis questions, explaining that those types of reports are not required or allowed at this current sketch plan phase and would be required if the application were to proceed forward.
“One of my big concerns after reading all of the letters is that it seems like a lot of the people are trying to pit the town against the county and I feel very uncomfortable with that, I just think that’s the wrong way to go,” said planning commissioner Jack Diani. “I think that if people are adamantly against this, then why aren’t they working with the town to annex this into the town?”
During public comment, Mt. Crested Butte mayor Janet Farmer spoke about the Town Council’s decision—six to one against the proposal. “There was a feeling there were enough available lots and built properties for sale in our community, we didn’t see the need for that property to be developed at this time,” she said. Annexation “was not something that was presented to us as an option at all. I realize it’s your property and you can do with it what you want, but I hope you can respect the decisions of the council.”
Todd Barnes, who was mayor at the time the project was reviewed by the town, was the solo vote to approve the project. “If you look at my council at that time, I had three persons on my council who had less than six months of experience. We had also been bombarded with the Nordic Inn, we had been bombarded with the arrival of Vail, we had been bombarded with a little thing called Brush Creek,” he explained. “We had a lot on our plates—my council felt intimidated.”
He continued, “I think that this is a reasonable application. The sketch plan looks pretty good. You have the multi-family butting up against other multi-family, transitioning into the single-family residential.” As an afterthought, he added, “Certainly, the previous drawing would have suited the neighborhood better.” That had proposed seven single-family units with access through Castle Road.
Castle Road resident Kathy Hooge spoke on past issues surrounding the parcel. “Various developers have tried to annex this parcel from Mt. Crested Butte … Driving up the mountain you see the scars from Anthracite Point, which are still visible after 12 years. Residents of Mt. Crested Butte are concerned about the abandoned projects and not enough money to get the land back as it was.”
Pat and Jim Nolan spoke about the challenges and expenses they have faced with renovating their lot on Hunter Hill, directly adjacent to the proposed property. In order to add a two-car garage, they ran into significant drainage, soil and stability problems, along with difficulties in restoring the area from noxious weeds back to its natural state from construction effects.
“The project has been going on for three and a half years and we haven’t finished it because of the difficult slope and the soil of this property,” said Jim Nolan. “Scott Hargrove, our builder, said our lot was the hardest lot he’s had to work on in Crested Butte … so I think your project is going to be extremely difficult to accomplish and I can very easily see it being abandoned because of the land.”
Overlook resident Bob Colby listed examples of soil instability within the whole neighborhood, including the new retaining walls that were put in at the Timberline Condos and the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation building. He explained a Summit lot was purchased in 2012 for $300,000 and sold last October for $15,000 because the cost of soil mitigation to build on the property was too high. “If this project were to go forward in whatever shape, the ethical question for all of us is, ‘How would the end buyer be informed of the risks and potential costs involved?’”
Resident Robert Valentine suggested an aggressive risk mitigation plan be put in place, such as a surety bond and personal guarantee to handle the risk. “I’m not against development, I want to make that clear. I just want to make sure we’re not stuck with future costs if something were to go badly for residents.”
The public also expressed their concerns over the road access. “Does the applicant have a legal right to access this property from Hunter Hill Road?” asked attorney Aaron Huckstep, representing Pat Nolan. “It seems like we’re wasting our time if they can’t get a legal right to access.”
Issues came up about road safety during construction and snow plowing. “Snow plowing is a huge issue,” said Overlook resident Linda Colby. “The way they have the roads stacked with this development … It’s just going to keep plowing down onto this steep snow right where the avalanche area is and it’s just going to be saturated and it will add to the instability of the snow.”
“It’s a complete do-over,” chimed in neighbor Nancy Grindlay. “When you look at the design layout there are multiple aspects … that go against all of the recommendations for development on steep and unstable slopes.”
Neighbors also expressed concern about feeling uninformed. “I’m very late to this. I just literally found out about this less than two weeks ago that this was even happening,” said Maria Martin. “I think I’m representative of many people on Hunter Hill Road, that we didn’t even know this was coming. It would be fair to the community to really be informed.”
Paul Hooge compared the Hunter Ridge project to other debated projects in the area. “We don’t have anything against the county. We all live in the county. But we do have serious considerations about some of the other things already going on,” he said. “Some of us have very serious questions about the Gates project. We are not all for that project. We also have problems with the Aperture project, and now have another county-proposed project next door to us. All of these things need to be put together so that we are all on the same page. Because there is some contentiousness—we need to have some more clarity and feel we are not getting it.”
Dawson was given the opportunity to respond to the public comment, and tensions grew.
“Most of the issues that were raised are contained in our application and we address that,” Dawson said. “Hunter Hill is a public road. There is no process in Mt. Crested Butte to request permission just because they own the road. We do have legal access to this parcel.”
A member of the audience asked Dawson to stand up and speak louder because they could not hear him, saying, “Sir, you’re responding to us. Can you at least face us?”
Dawson refused, saying, “I’m not going to be held hostage. It’s on the record.”
He continued, “Yes it will require engineering, yes it will require site-specific engineering but that’s normal in Mt. Crested Butte … I would remind the Planning Commission that this is not a popularity contest. We have specific guidelines that need to be followed for the approval of developments. The town of Mt. Crested Butte has close to 900 residents. I would encourage you not to be held hostage by local minority in the town of Mt. Crested Butte. Let’s follow the standards on the books, let’s do solid good planning.”
“I think it would be in our best interests to continue the public hearing and continue the discussion,” said planning commissioner A.J. Cattles. “I would love to have some time to process this and continue to another date and give you all another opportunity to speak. I would love to hear more about the access. That seems to be one of the most contentious items on this list.”
The Planning Commission decided to continue the discussion on October 18 at 9 a.m.