Over-regulation or doing what it was meant to do?
Apparently some buildings in town can have two ground floors, and the Somrak Plaza on Elk Avenue is one of them. As a result, the front section of both floors in that building come under the town’s horizontal zoning ordinance, which bans most office uses.
The building’s owners feel this is an over-extension of the ordinace, while the Crested Butte town staff believes it accomplishes exactly what the ordinance was intended to do. The Town Council is taking two weeks to think about the situation.
“The council at the time of enacting horizontal zoning wanted to create a retail environment on Elk Avenue,” explained Crested Butte zoning and building director Bob Gillie. “Given the amount of display windows that fronted the street on both levels, the council at the time wanted to have the rules apply to both floors. Of course, the council can change its mind. But at the time, it wasn’t a slip-up. It was a deliberate decision for those types of split level buildings.”
One of the building’s owners, Chuck Cliggett, argued to the council that imposing the ordinance on the entire building was an extreme hardship. “We want the building to comply with the spirit of the ordinance,” he said. “The lower level is the pedestrian level and it has two retail shops in there. But we think having both floors come in under the ordinance is tough on us.”
Cliggett explained that when an architect recently wanted to rent out one of the upper offices, the town said that wasn’t allowed. “We thought they were kidding at first,” said Cliggett. “But this isn’t a word game. It’s my livelihood and a lot of people work for me and make a living there. I have an obligation to them. The definition of a ground floor in the ordinance makes no sense at all. I suggest the town look at the definitions used by other resort towns with similar ordinances.’
Mayor Alan Bernholtz told Cliggett the council has an obligation to the 1,600 citizens of the town. “We are not nonchalant about it,” he said. “We were looking at the town as a whole and not just your building.”
Councilmember Leah Williams said the council at the time made the decision to include the whole building because the huge glass windows made it look like one large storefront. “The overall experience of walking down Elk Avenue is how we came to the decision,” she said. “The design of that building was to allow for visual retail space and, right or wrong, that’s how we came to that decision.”
Councilman Dan Escalante said he empathized with Cliggett’s argument. “I feel it is over-regulation,” he said. “I usually agree with the staff but I think this goes too far. I’d like to try to make a change, but am I the only one on the council feeling that way?”
Councilman Skip Berkshire said it wasn’t an easy choice. “This is a hard deal,” he said. “It seems like it should be a no-brainer to use one floor. But I understand both sides.”
Councilman Reed Betz fell into the same undecided camp as Berkshire.
Gillie said the town can change the ordinance to reflect what the current council desires. He explained after the meeting that the restriction in the current ordinance wouldn’t apply to the entire upper floor of Somrak Plaza. The spaces could be divided into several units but retail use would be required in the area fronting Elk Avenue.
Bernholtz said perhaps the council should take some time to re-evaluate the impact. “I’d like to take some time and look at some of the other buildings that might be impacted,” Bernholtz said. “Chuck is making some good argumets. Sometimes things slip throught the cracks. I’m not saying we’ll change it but I think we should take a look at it. Give us some time to visit the building.”
Williams reminded the council that the intent of the ordinance was to “enhance the retail experience in town. This was one of the hardest things we did as a council,” she said. “Overall we need to think about what is in the best interest of the greatest number of people.”
Town attorney John Belkin told the Town Council that the situation with Somrak Plaza was accomplishing the intent of the ordinance. “There was a real estate company on one side and a mortgage office on the other. Now that they’ve left, those spaces can eventually be filled with retail and that’s what the council wanted at the time.”
“That’s a harsh econmic reality for a property owner when there isn’t a lot of retail trying to rent the space,” said Cliggett.
Bernholtz promised the council would “take an honest, hard look at the situation but we can’t guarantee that anything will change.”
The council will revisit the issue at the October 20 council meeting.