Affordable housing a top priority of CB town council

Figuring out when, where and how to pay for it

[ by Mark Reaman ]

The future of affordable housing in the valley was a primary topic of discussion for the Crested Butte Town Council at the December 21 meeting. Several ideas and strategies are being mulled over to address the issue.

Some of those ideas include possibly asking citizens to approve a tax that would specifically fund workforce housing; not over-saturating the market with similar projects at the same time; doing a water well study at the Brush Creek property south of town to see how much water the land produces; focusing and coordinating the projects currently in the hopper with Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte and Gunnison County; and recognizing the sense of urgency associated with the need for more affordable housing.

Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ and town planner Mel Yemma presented an hour-long work session of a proposed five-year plan for housing in the north valley. They went over Telluride’s affordable housing plan that included significant taxes that fund such projects. They also outlined the local projects that are progressing and showed that hundreds of units are actually in the pipeline.

About 100 deed-restricted units are slated to come online in Gunnison next year. Major projects being considered in the north valley include the Slate River annexation housing opportunity in Crested Butte; the potential North Village project in Mt. Crested Butte; and Brush Creek and Whetstone (the land across the highway from the Corner at Brush Creek). Combined, those could bring several hundred more deed-restricted units into the mix.

That is on top of other initiatives like the InDeed program that would purchase deed restrictions on existing free market homes; the student build project in Paradise Park; the Redden “Tiny Home” development; and the Homestead at Prospect housing project in Mt. Crested Butte.

Basically, Russ indicated that next year would be spent primarily in the planning phase. Crested Butte is starting its comprehensive “Community Compass” planning, Mt. Crested Butte is updating its Comprehensive Plan and the county commissioners are beginning a Strategic Plan update.

“Everything needs balance,” said Russ. “That is part of the Compass and all the planning initiatives. It is part of the challenge going forward.”

The Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority is expected to begin a new Needs Assessment study for the valley starting next spring. That data will help drive what sort of projects should emerge in the north valley.

In a memo from town manager Dara MacDonald to the council, she stated, “It is important that each project be carefully thought through as to unit type, size and price point to make sure they are meeting the highest needs. It is also important to coordinate the projects to ensure they do not compete with one another to the detriment of the success of any projects… Additionally, development opportunities of this magnitude also bring with them several ancillary impacts that must be considered and mitigated including traffic, utilities, transit demand and impacts on recreation facilities to name a few.”

Would a new tax work?
Russ cited the effective use of bonding and taxes to leverage money for workforce housing in Telluride. While Crested Butte doesn’t normally go into debt for such projects, he said it would be worth asking the citizens if that policy should be adjusted. “It is important to think into the future and understanding upcoming growth and its impacts on housing,” Russ said. “The town has done an amazing job from a regulatory perspective in developing places to live in town but we can look at other tools in the toolbox. Housing is a regional issue, not just Crested Butte. Given Crested Butte’s price point, the whole north valley has more opportunities than just the town.”

“A big question is what is our comfort level as a community if we go to the citizens and ask for the ability to bond and go into debt for affordable housing,” said council member Laura Mitchell.

“Again, that’s part of the Community Compass,” said Russ. “What does the Crested Butte community want Crested Butte to be like 20 years from now? That will help outline the community decision-making framework. And then there is the need to coordinate with our partners.”

Citizen Margo Levy said the town needed to come up with ways for more people to reside in town. She also said there was a need to leverage town affordable housing funds to get more units on the ground.

Kent Cowherd advocated for using the Slate River annexation project for so-called “Space to Create” housing that included things like artist studios or small retail spaces in conjunction with housing. He also asked the council to begin studying whether the land behind the Crested Butte Community School was a wetland or if it could be used for another major housing project. “I urge the council and public to understand the urgency of the affordable housing need,” he said. “Declare a ‘housing emergency’ like council did with the Climate Action Plan.”

Finding water at Brush Creek
Mayor Jim Schmidt suggested it would be worthwhile to have the four partners in the Corner at Brush Creek parcel conduct a well test this winter to see how much water could be pumped on the land. “It makes sense to do it this year and see what is out there during a relatively dry year,” he said.

“If there is not much water, do we lose that land for potential housing?” asked council member Mona Merrill.
MacDonald said during the Corner at Brush Creek discussions several options to provide water to the property were touched upon.

Skyland resident George Gibson supported the well testing idea and asked that some of the testing include monitoring the neighboring wells to see what impact the pumping would have on them.

“It is an important step,” Gibson said. “We all want to know what is there, so please go forward and do it right and look at the neighboring wells too.”

MacDonald said she would approach the other owners of the property with the proposal to conduct such tests.
Council member Will Dujardin said while it was understandable to see what projects were happening throughout the valley, “We need to deal with our one square mile of town. We need to keep local people living in town,” he said. “And I’ll echo Kent’s comment on the need for urgency over the issue. We need to look out for ourselves as well as be good partners.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” said Russ. “Representatives of Mt. Crested Butte, the housing authority and the county will be meeting regularly to stay informed about housing. For example, we wouldn’t want Slate River and the Whetstone project starting at the same time and competing for the same dollars. Our square mile is important but housing transcends just Crested Butte.”

What about Kent’s school site suggestion?
Dujardin suggested the town take up Cowherd’s suggestion and conduct a wetland study of the land by the school to see if it still is wet or if a development could go there.

Russ said as part of previous deals with the property, there is a covenant on the land with the Army Corp of Engineers that the town cannot develop those wetlands.

Bob Gillie, who was town planner at the time, said the whole wetland delineation issue was tied to the Trust for Public Land that helped facilitate the purchase of the property. “And if you develop wetlands, you have to mitigate and create wetlands elsewhere, which can be expensive.”

Town attorney Barbara Green said wetland issues are not just a town matter but also extend to the county, state and federal level.

Russ emphasized there were several housing projects further along in discussions and the focus should remain on them.
“We will examine every square inch of town over the next several years for housing but every project is intensive and eats up staff time to do well,” said MacDonald. “This might very well be good for housing but we have plans in the north valley for hundreds of units. I would recommend focusing on the Slate River project that is a big lift right now. Plus it is more shovel-ready than the school parcel.”

“In the big picture it is important to get an updated study of that property,” said Dujardin.

“If we don’t know what we can do on that property, then we don’t have an understanding of the big picture,” added council member Mallika Magner.

“Two things have been determined. We know that land has been designated a wetland and there is no reason to believe that’s changed,” said MacDonald. “And there is a covenant tied to the property with the Corps of Engineers.”

“That property has met the community values for years so that is why I am excited about the Compass,” said Merrill. “Do the residents still want that to be open space or are they good with more affordable housing?”

“The hard thing is that when council focuses on one thing they forget about everything else,” said mayor Jim Schmidt. “That is what the Compass is about. Kent’s idea would bring more units but it would also bring a lot more traffic to an already busy area, for example.”

“I would rather keep moving toward the Slate River annexation project,” said council member Laura Mitchell. “It is better situated. Have you been over in that neighborhood when school is in session? They are overrun by traffic already.”
“It’s not time to get into details now,” said Dujardin.

The housing discussion will continue with the planning efforts taking immediate priority in early 2021 while government staffs will continue to move to solidify affordable housing projects already on the drawing board. From a policy perspective, the elected officials will determine how best to take the interest of citizens and ultimately, how to pay for the millions of dollars worth of new projects.

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