Housing, climate and collaboration rise to top of list at Candidates Forum

Eight people running for five seats

[ By Mark Reaman ]

While there were a few disagreements voiced among the candidates for the Crested Butte town council and mayor at Sunday’s Crested Butte News Candidates Forum, the big picture was drawn pretty much the same as everyone saw affordable housing, climate change mitigation and regional collaboration as the major issues facing Crested Butte in the immediate future.

The biggest splits came over the proposed community housing tax on the November ballot and the continued use of permit parking in town. Mayoral candidate Ian Billick and council candidate Sean Horne both said they were not supportive of the proposed tax which has been called everything from a community preservation fee to the dark or empty house tax to a second homeowner or vacancy tax.

Horne said the “vacancy” tax would be extremely divisive within the community and anger the second homeowners. He said that because it would apply just to property in town it wouldn’t raise enough money to tackle the housing crisis beyond “nibbling at the edges.” He said the community “needs to win the argument on the importance of supporting and funding affordable housing and make the ask of all property owners. We need to reject the divisive vacancy tax and take the opportunity to go down a new path.” He said his focus would be on having town develop units that could be offered to local businesses to house their key employees.

Council candidate Anna Fenerty said she supported the tax. “I trust the process it took to get there,” she said. “The housing problem has been an issue for decades. The decision for the tax should be up to the voters. I have known some second homeowners for years. There is time for them to reach out and make their case heard to the voters.”

Council candidate Jason MacMillan agreed. “I understand the pushback but I met with Jim Starr of the Valley Housing Fund and they’ve only received $25,000 in donations from second homeowners since the conversation about the tax started. I have come to realize we need a sustainable revenue source to address the costs of affordable housing and I’m not confident donations will do it.”

Council candidate Beth Goldstone said the need for money to address the issue is obvious. “I’m bummed when people feel this is a divisive thing,” she said. “I look at it not as a punishment but to help offset a bad situation. I for example support the new InDeed program (that would purchase deed restrictions on existing units) but it needs money for the program to work. After a lot of debate, the amount was lowered to $2,500 annually and tied to a sales tax everyone has to pay. There are also exemptions, so I am supportive.”

Council candidate Chris Haver said having workforce housing in Crested Butte was critical to preserving the culture of Crested Butte. “I was against it at first but now feel it is fair to put it up to the community to decide. Time is running out and it’s a community problem.”

Council candidate Jasmine Whelan pointed out that if a homeowner rented out an accessory dwelling unit or even just a room to a local worker, the tax would be waived on that property so there is a cost to not renting long-term. “Right now there is an imbalance in town with the housing market,” she said. “Crested Butte has a history of trailblazing and the citizens of Crested Butte recognize a good idea when they see one and I support it.” She also pointed out grants will be available to second homeowners who might have a difficult time paying the tax.

Mayoral candidate Kent Cowherd said the tax proposal was a good idea. “My preference is for a “carrot” type project that draws in second homeowners, but I like that this allows the town to perhaps bond for affordable housing projects.”
Billick said he opposed the tax because there is not a specific plan on how the money raised would be spent. “Money is not a substitute for a plan,” he said. “We haven’t agreed to any details from the number of units needed, to the geography of where they should be located, what type of units should be built. Usually money comes in after a plan to fund the plan. We need a plan first then we can figure out the funding mechanism.”

Incremental shifts and climate
Jim Starr asked about the concept of incrementalism and how the council would deal with the impact of future growth, even the growth brought in through major affordable housing projects.

Fenerty said the future of Crested Butte is one that embraces renewable energy and more electric power. “There are ways as more people live and visit here to incentivize them to not drive. I can’t even walk around town anymore,” she said. “We need to think abut the structure needed to get people out of their cars. Make bikes available to people for example.”

Horne said the valley will continue to see growth pressures indefinitely. “We need extra infrastructure. That’s a challenge council will face.”

“The incrementalism is one reason for the (vacancy) tax,” said MacMillan. “We are a leading mountain town and we need to make bold decisions to address the issues. We need to build the infrastructure that comes with more people calling this place home.”

“I see the incremental changes and that brings a need to collaborate with regional entities,” said Cowherd. “We need to define what is important to us. I’m not sure we have the answers yet.”

“We need to focus on thoughtful development,” said Whelan. “For example, we need to incorporate climate action goals into the Sixth and Butte affordable housing. The Green Deed program is important. We need to expand transportation to access trails. Regional cooperation is important and so is the Community Compass planning process to decide how we want to move forward.”

“That is the key question to address head on,” said Billick. “The valley will fill up. I think we will end up hosting climate refugees as other places feel climate impacts and this is still a nice place. There will be huge pressure to develop all the eligible land in the valley. Net zero (carbon) buildings is something to be very aggressive about. With tons of people, transportation will be a problem. This community has been super fortunate with aggressively protecting its landscapes through things like the Land Trust. But we need to put density in the towns and invest in mass transit.”

“Oftentimes council deals with issues in isolation,” said Haver. “That’s the purpose of the Community Compass. What is the big picture to keep the community in balance? We need a collaborative discussion with our neighbors in the valley and we need to address all the consequences of our decisions. We can’t look at one problem at a time.”

Goldstone agreed. “Countywide collaboration and transportation are so important,” she said. “Growth will happen. We need to decrease car trips, but Crested Butte is one square mile, so we need regional collaboration.”

Parking and traffic issues
Audrey Anderson asked the candidates about overall parking and traffic issues in town and specifically about permit parking, Elk Avenue’s summer one-way configuration and traffic enforcement.

“The permit parking program was tied to the Elk Avenue one-way and I’m not a fan of the one-way,” said Cowherd. “We’re a more traditional town and we should have Elk open to two-way traffic. I am in favor of enforcing the two-hour parking limit on Elk. Traffic enforcement is important and it would be good to have a police presence in the neighborhoods to reduce speeding.”

“I agree with Kent,” said Billick. “I favor pedestrians and bikes in town. The one-way configuration made sense for COVID. Some of the streets in town are dangerous because they aren’t built for density and speed. Talking to people, residents want a pedestrian town but this has not been getting us there.”

“Sadly, the parking program is a reality for our future,” countered Haver. “We can learn a lot from this past summer but there will come a time it is needed more. I’m not sure why permit parking would be needed this winter. As for the one-way, it seemed to help restaurants which are dwindling, so I’m not sure which way I would go for next summer.”
“It’s all about cars,” emphasized Goldstone. “If we can decrease cars that would make all three issues feel better. So how do we decrease car usage in town? As for the one-way, I want to hear from business owners before making a decision. We need to look for creative solutions.”

“I’ve learned being on council that while someone might be passionate about one side of an issue there are passionate people on the other side,” said Whelan. “We’ve heard from people wanting the permit parking to expand to their neighborhoods. As Sixth and Butte and Paradise Park and maybe the hostel bring in more people to those neighborhoods, parking has to be addressed. Like Chris said, it is probably inevitable to go there at some point. On the one-way, restaurants are still struggling so I’d probably keep the tables in the street for next summer. They might need it.”

Horne wants to keep one element of the parking program. “I think enforcing the two-hour time limit for parking on Elk Avenue is important,” he said. “But the rest could be eliminated. I feel strongly about the restaurant seating being discontinued. They are short staffed now and those extra tables take up parking spaces. It’s not equitable to retail. I do think the one-way configuration reduces congestion so I’d have to look at it closer.”

Fenerty said she would consider allowing citizens to help enforce traffic laws in town by being able to write tickets. “The traffic issue is huge for me and is one reason I was inspired to run,” said Fenerty. “I don’t think Elk should be one-way. Instead of visually narrowing the side streets why not physically narrow them and provide a place for pedestrians to walk. Maybe permits are needed for everyone living and working in town and the two-hour limits should be enforced everywhere.”

“Elk Avenue one-way sounded like a good idea at the time but it put some strain on businesses and was inequitable,” said MacMillan. “I’m not in favor of instituting it next year. As for the desire by some to keep parking free and easy in town, that incentivizes cars and parking. We need to encourage pedestrians and bikers and not incentivize the use of cars.”

BLM and more climate…and mayoral weakness
When asked about how the council should work with the local Black Lives Matter Community Coalition, all the candidates said they appreciated the initiative and awareness it brought to the community. All wanted to continue working with the group.

Whelan and Haver suggested there might need to be a reset in terms of communication and trust between the town and BLM. Billick said the role of government is to ‘empower the community’ and supporting such grassroots groups was important. “That is where the best solutions come from,” he said.

“It is important for council to have the equity and inclusiveness lens when making decisions,” added Goldstone. Fenerty said the council could support artistic projects that moved the cause forward.

With the exception of Billick, the candidates all supported the ballot issue raising the short-term rental fee from 5 percent to 7.5 percent. Billick restated his desire for a plan being in place before increasing tax revenues to fund a nebulous goal of more housing. Horne said the customer-employee balance in town was out of whack and the tax increase could make STRs uncomfortable. Goldstone said STRs should be taxed more like a business. Whelan said STRs are having negative impacts on neighborhood livability and the tax increase was reasonable. Cowherd said he doubted people would balk at the tax since “our town is worth it.”

When asked if town could take action to encourage or mandate better construction practices in terms of climate mitigation the candidates all said that should be considered.

“I think town can implement some measures to incorporate environmentally-friendly building materials and steer the town toward electrifying,” said Cowherd.

“We need to get to net zero buildings,” said Billick. “If anything moves the climate dial it is driving down carbon footprints. New tools are emerging nationally and we should be moving in that direction.”

“Air source heat pumps. Electrifying everything over the next decade. Using more stringent building codes,” should all play a part,” said MacMillan. “There are opportunities for big gains. We all see the writing on the wall with climate change.”

“Bringing in a solar farm (at Avalanche Park south of town) and looking at more building efficiency is important,” said Haver. “We have to be realistic with our building codes. The Community Compass can help us with the direction.”
“This is something to prioritize with our affordable housing developments,” said Whelan. “We need to make sure the solutions to one issue serves the goals of the others.”

“I am passionate about this in general and is a reason I am running for council,” said Goldstone. “I want to listen to the people who have done it well already. The new affordable housing has to be built to our standards and it is important for the county to be on board and not just our one square mile.”

Outgoing mayor Jim Schmidt asked both people vying to replace him to describe what they see as their weakness in the mayor’s role.

Cowherd admitted he would make mistakes in the job but is ready to listen. “I’d say right now I don’t know everything,” he said.

For Billick he admitted that he was impatient. “I want to make things happen quickly,” he said. “So for me it is managing my impatience. Plus trying to replace your community involvement and experience is intimidating so there is a big learning curve to me.”

Voters should have received their ballots by now. They can be mailed in to the county’s election office or dropped off before November 2.

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