Whetstone housing plan before county planners later this month

Site visit and work session planned for late October

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

What could become a large workforce-centric neighborhood along Highway 135 south of Crested Butte in the near future has taken another step on the path to review and possible approval. The Whetstone Community Housing project, which is now in sketch plan with Gunnison County for consideration in the Land Use Resolution (LUR) major impact process, will be on the Gunnison County Planning Commission’s October 20 agenda. And while many of the design, infrastructure and impact details are not yet known, officials say they are committed to deed restrictions for all the units within the 13-acre, county-owned parcel if at all possible. That remains to be seen.

The Whetstone project is located to the west of the highway across from Brush Creek Road, and the county’s sketch plan calls for 231 units of various sizes and a redesign of the Brush Creek Road intersection, including the addition of a roundabout and a surface crossing for pedestrians. 

County officials and a representative from the consulting group Trestle Strategy Group sat down with the Crested Butte News this week to take a deeper dive on the initial proposal—which would be the county’s first ever workforce housing project in the North Valley. 

A past effort to build workforce housing on a parcel along Brush Creek Road that is co-owned by the county, Crested Butte Mountain Resort and the towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte ultimately failed due to, among other reasons, disagreement on how many units the parcel could sustainably hold. While the county had been comfortable with around 180 units, the municipalities had a lower comfort level of 158 in consideration of the impacts on the North Valley community’s resources. 

The Whetstone sketch is already looking larger than either of those Brush Creek concepts, and Gunnison County assistant county manager for operations and sustainability John Cattles said it is essentially a matter of what fits on this particular parcel and the economy of size. 

Cattles said many of the issues from the Brush Creek project are different for the Whetstone site, such as not starting with one developer. In fact, the county has spoken with 13 different developers and expects a great deal of interest from them.

“We didn’t set out with a goal of how many units we could fit there. We looked at the site and we wanted to use it as efficiently as we could,” said Cattles. He said quite a lot more units could fit on the site, but other goals such as creating open space and snow storage were a factor. “A lot of these numbers are driven by the cost to build something like this. I think that’s what we saw at Brush Creek.”

Cattles points out that the construction costs have only gotten higher, and the same amount of road and pipes in the ground are needed no matter what the size of the project. “The reality is that you need a certain amount of units to be able to support the cost of that infrastructure.”

The project will not have a developer until a later stage in the approval process, as the project team will wait to send out a request for proposals (RFP) until after getting a general sense of the planning commission’s take on the project. And the developer will have to decide how the numbers work.

“The sketch plan process is a specific process in the LUR,” said Cattles. “We often get asked a lot of things that we can’t answer. The LUR wants us to wait until later to address certain issues. It’s a disciplined approach.” 

Cattles says the project team expects that if the sketch plan is accepted it will take close to a year to hash out some details in the preliminary plan stage, “where some of the design starts to get fleshed out,” before a final plan can proceed. That preliminary stage won’t start until the 2023 building season, although Cattles predicts the final plan will probably be the shortest of the three steps in the LUR process. “Then we can get permits to actually turn dirt and do work,” possibly in 2024.

While this is a longer timeline than originally estimated, several important steps have come into play like the county’s acquisition of some property adjacent to the parcel, and the subsequent redesign efforts for the Brush Creek Road intersection. 

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said Cathie Pagano, assistant county manager for community and economic development.

Cattles and Pagano say that once RFPs come in with cost estimates, the next year will be about leveraging funds to maximize deed restriction potential. “We focused a lot on the design to make sure we have a good quality neighborhood that will be very livable,” said Cattles.

Danika Powell, founder/owner of Trestle, described how different styles of units get funded differently. “How does that create a good neighborhood with alley-loaded streets and front porches? We’re trying to keep up a certain amount of density so that financially the project pencils, but we’re also delivering that different type of housing to the community that we heard loud and clear,” she said, based on the community input processes of 2021.

The growth factor

As for the North Valley’s ability to absorb this potential growth, Cattles and Pagano do not believe the population will increase. “This development is to address growth that has already happened,” said Pagano. “It’s not about new people moving here. This is about housing people that do not have housing,” said Pagano.

Cattles said he hopes it will also reduce the amount of commuting from Gunnison. 

“The thing that drives growth is not homes for workers. What drives growth is jobs,” he said. “The growth engine is already there and it’s something that I don’t think anybody has a good hold on trying to control. We’re trying to, at this point, mitigate the impacts of that growth engine.”

Cattles said the town of Crested Butte has brought some good input and ideas to the Brush Creek intersection design, and the goal is to include an underpass as part of the project package to manage the highway impacts. 

As far as the attainability of the housing for the local workforce, the LUR requires the project to include a minimum of 40% deed restricted units.  

“We want to see 100% deed restricted,” said Cattles, which is likely to be based on a combination of Area Median Income (AMI) percentages and local employment or public service employment. “That’s not something we’ve totally resolved,” he said.

“And we’re not able to without a developer, because until we have a developer and financials, we don’t know the cost of everything,” added Pagano. 

Higher levels of AMI-based restrictions require more subsidies, and cost more to developers, explained Powell. “That’s what we’ll be looking for when we go out and look for a development partner as well, is how they would approach that [deed restriction aspect],” she said.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know yet. We have our goals but we can’t be very specific,” Cattles said of the process that has really just started. 

Ultimately, the project team wanted to emphasize a partnership mentality to the process even as details can get thorny. 

“This is an incredibly complicated project,” said Pagano. “The county has been really striving to work with our partners.” She said she and Cattles remind themselves often that, “We all have the same goals. We may not all have the same approach to get there, but our goals are aligned with the municipalities, with our community. We want to house our community members.” 

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