Annexation hangover

The latest twists in a proposed Crested Butte annexation bring with it a variety of immediate reactions: disappointment, bafflement, anger, cynicism and reality check.

Last December the Town Council and developers of the proposed annexation officially met for the first time to discuss the broad concept of possibly annexing 44 acres just north of town into Crested Butte. It was a long meeting and one filled with hugs, high fives, champagne and unicorns. It was a six-hour rainbow fest. Man, this was going to be a different deal! Affordable housing, open space, someone willing to pay for the clean-up of the old town dump—it was win-win-win for everyone. “We want to take a totally different approach from the last applicants,” the developers promised.

I wrote the day after the meeting that I didn’t want to be cynical, “but based on past experience there will come a time when the developers feel the goal posts will be moved by the town and the council will feel squeezed by the developers. So enjoy the champagne now…”

That time has come and I hope they all enjoyed the champagne, because after a couple of letter exchanges the champagne is running out. It sure seemed in December that the developers had explicitly said they would be responsible for paying for and cleaning up the old dump. Their April letter to the town said they wanted some financial credit for the clean-up. That wasn’t the impression they gave at the public meetings but I guess they never said they wouldn’t ask for that. And in fact the council had given a grudging nod to possibly allow them to use some cleaned-up town-owned property by the public works yard as part of a park fee in the subdivision process as a result of the clean-up. Now we’re into lawyering. Now we’re into the reality check.

The two Cypress letters indicate they are just trying to give “the parties a point from which to negotiate.”

The developers starting points include wanting access to see what is under the town’s property that included the old dumpsite. But they don’t want to share what they find with the town and if they do, they want the town to keep it secret from its residents. That can’t happen.

Cypress started the negotiations saying this deal would be different and they would do the clean-up. All of it. On their dime. Now, not so much. Again, the impression was the town wouldn’t have to compensate anyone for the clean-up. But that was just an impression behind the rainbow. This whole turn of events isn’t making sense to the council. The two sides weren’t hearing the same things between high fives and swigs of champagne. I think the council had hoped this group really was different and wouldn’t act as a stereotypical developer. Oh well.

The council could be excused for just ending the whole deal with this letter exchange. But they shouldn’t. They should just accept the reality check.

Let’s take a step back. Take the magic rainbow wand and pretend that the meetings in December and January didn’t really happen. All the platitudes and golden hope for a unique Colorado development vision can be cast aside.

Annexation proposals are really just a math and political equation. How little can the developer buy the land for? What does the bank get? How much money goes into infrastructure like roads and sewer lines? How much land do the proponents have to give the town? What else do they have to pay to the town in affordable housing, open space, parks, schools and the rest? Subtract that number from what the market will allow the developer to sell that land for to people who want to have a piece of property and a potential place in Crested Butte. That final number in the equation gives the developer a big clue to whether or not it is worth doing the deal.

On the town side, some communities want to give developers every incentive to annex and expand the town. Crested Butte isn’t one of those communities. So the council has to demand concessions and listen to the will of the people. That’s the politics. It has worked in the past and I’d say the Verzuh annexation is a great example of a great development project, but it is rarely a peaceful, easy process. Look, the highest property values in the county are in the town of Crested Butte, so if a developer group wants to come into the fold, they have to come with a dowry. The general impression was that cleaning up the old town dump was that dowry.

If the developers wanted financial help with what will surely be a several million-dollar dump clean-up, they should not have made an offer to pay for it on their own. The impression was obvious to the public that they would pick up the tab. It used to be in the West that a deal is a deal. The latest offer in the letters might even have a valid point or two but it’s not what the developers indicated they were going to do unless you rely on lawyer speak. And that is part of the reality check.

So now the council has to take a step back, look at the big picture and decide whether or not cleaning up the dump and getting some good amenities is worth doing with some municipal help. But now they can evaluate the deal without the pretense of a bunch of buddies sitting around thinking they are all on the same page with the same goals to make this the best darn development in the galaxy. It’s a math and political equation and the guys on the other side have just shown they might leave false impressions to get seven councilmembers to agree to keep moving forward.

I hate to be cynical but that early champagne binge sure looks to be bringing on a hangover. So take the time to down a Hurley from the Gasser, take an aspirin and start over but this time in reality and in writing.

—Mark Reaman

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