CB council ready to reach out to help solve vacant building issue

Vacant buildings suck vitality from town

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

The Crested Butte town council expressed an interest in, at the very least, nudging owners of vacant commercial buildings located in town to do what they can to fill them. While touching on potential future regulatory measures that might be possible to force owners to keep a building open and operating, the council made it clear they wanted to start with a so-called “soft touch” and reach out to the owners and see if the town can assist in getting the buildings filled. The idea of using carrots before sticks was top of mind for the council.

Crested Butte councilmember Chris Haver brought the issue up a couple months ago when he expressed concern that having so many high-profile buildings sit empty on Elk Avenue would detract from the character of town this winter. The town’s Community Development Department presented a memo to council on Monday, December 19 indicating that under current town regulations, there is not much that can be done to force occupancy or mandate renovation of a building except in cases of public health and safety.

Community Development director Troy Russ said in his memo that while the overall vacancy rate is quite low, “what is particularly alarming is the number of vacant buildings along the commercial portions of Elk Avenue,” he wrote. “Currently, there are eight known vacant buildings on Elk Avenue between First and Sixth Streets, the town’s most important area for sales tax generation and businesses serving locals and visitors.”

Many of the vacant properties were purchased recently by financially well-off investors including billionaire Mark Walter who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“Vacant buildings present many concerns for municipal governments, most notably: economic development, sense of community, historic preservation, and life safety,” Russ wrote.

Private property rights issue

When asked why towns don’t normally have the power to require occupancy as part of zoning, Russ and town attorney Karl Hanlon explained that a government entity has a different relationship between private business and property owners than say, a commercial development or commercial property association that could contractually require a building be open and operating for a minimum amount of time.

“Some places have performance expectations but that is normally between an owner and a tenant in the private sector, not with public governments,” said Russ.

“Government can mandate some things through zoning and use its police powers to enforce that, but they can’t tell people what they can do with their private property aside from the zoning,” added Hanlon. “You could try to have zoning regulations that require a building be occupied” but Hanlon indicated that would be pushing the margins noting that the ultimate enforcement would be condemnation to take the building away from an owner. 

“That would be super rare,” he continued. “Property rights are a big deal, and I would guarantee that would get the town in a lawsuit and off the top of my head I can’t say the town would win.”

“If we tried to be more aggressive and force a landowner into occupancy, I think we would currently lose,” added Russ. “We could move forward and begin crafting a new ordinance and be clearer on the public purpose and condemnation process.”

Hanlon said another path would be for Crested Butte to form an urban renewal authority and declare that Elk Avenue is blighted. “Would it fit that Elk Avenue is blighted?” he asked. “Probably not.”

Hanlon advised the council to understand that given who currently owns the vacant property, motivational tools that might motivate councilmembers as individuals, might not necessarily motivate the (wealthy) investors of today with property on Elk Avenue.

“I am worried that we’re in a new realm where investment is all about capital appreciation and we do become blighted,” said mayor Ian Billick.

Start soft

“The softer touch would be for the council to write a letter to the building owners explaining the impacts of the empty buildings on the town. I know a phone call to his (Walter’s) team quickly motivated some movement on the Forest Queen building and that was positive. So, starting there is probably best,” suggested Russ.

“I think some building owners understand Crested Butte and realize empty buildings won’t help town,” said Haver. “My guess is that the current situation isn’t going to their original plan either. It was probably not their intent to keep these vacant.

“Using their property is a benefit to the community,” continued Haver. “Elk Avenue is our main thoroughfare. Maybe we can help them in some way. Having these places empty really hurts our community. It hurts what attracted them here in the first place. As a town, it is a scary thing that owners can just sit on their property. It would be better to have conversations with the owners.”

“I like the idea of starting softly through communication with the building owners,” said Billick. “I would also like to see mechanisms the town could use to support businesses trying to get open. The carrot is just as important as the stick. I would love to send a letter and see what response we get. The vitality of the town is important.”

Councilwoman Beth Goldstone said she supported reaching out to building and business owners in the same situation and not just the ones with property on Elk Avenue.

“A softer touch to start is a good approach,” agreed councilmember Gabi Prochaska. “It starts the good groundwork.”

Councilmember Anna Fenerty looked at the other side of the coin and noted that “empty, run-down buildings have been a part of Crested Butte for a long time. They are part of the character.”

“I like the idea of reaching out to businesses that may have gotten stuck and hit a regulatory hurdle that we can help with,” added councilmember Mallika Magner.

Russ reminded council that there are only so many hours in a day and that if the council wanted his team to focus on the empty building issue, it would take away from other issues already in the community development queue. 

Billick asked the staff to do some preliminary analysis and see if they can start with a letter addressing the issue and what would be needed beyond that.

Town manager Dara MacDonald said the council would see a draft letter on the issue in the near future along with a promise to see how the town staff can help local businesses navigate the bureaucratic system to get open. “Hopefully, these things will help provide momentum and we won’t have to focus on a new, big regulatory framework,” she said.

“Let’s start small and see what comes of it,” concluded Billick.

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