CB council starts the list of questions for Whetstone housing project

Water and annexation a touchy subject to analyze further

By Mark Reaman 

After an almost two-hour public hearing and council discussion on Tuesday, February 21, it was decided that the Crested Butte town council will compile a list of questions for the county to address over the proposed Whetstone affordable housing project that the council is considering supplying water and sewer services to. They have also asked the town staff to begin analyzing the ramifications of possibly annexing that property into town as opposed to simply doing it as an extraterritorial utility extension.

Among the topics brought up Tuesday were concerns that there would not be enough actual “wet water” to service the town and the project into the future, the potential cost of the utility extension to town residents, the impact of the design at the entrance to the town, the general impacts to the town of Crested Butte of adding hundreds of additional year-round residents to the area, sustainability issues, the possibility of supercharged development given access to a water and sewer line outside of town, and how annexing might allow workers to continue to have a voice in town politics and direction.

The county is going through its Land Use Resolution preliminary plan review process for the proposal located about two miles south of Crested Butte. 

While a project developer is currently being sought, the county’s sketch plan calls for a potential 231 units at the location. At least 80% of the units would have some sort of deed restriction and the county is hoping to build the majority of the units as rentals.

Public comment

The public hearing was run by facilitator Miles Graham who has done such work for community discussions in Crested Butte in the past. People spoke both in person and online. Valley Housing Fund board president Scott Desmarais said the community badly needed the project since there was no way to stop people from moving to the valley. “We need to be bold on affordable housing, now,” he said. 

Former mayor Jim Schmidt brought up the concern of having enough actual water, and not just sufficient water rights on paper to service the project. “What other alternatives were evaluated for water and sewer?” he asked. “I am concerned with the actual wet water available. Coal Creek that supplies the town with its water doesn’t always have a lot of water at certain times of the year like fall. Will this require another expansion of the wastewater and water treatment plants? People with properties near the utility line will want to hook up to it and that will lead to more development and use. I am concerned about the expense and ramifications to the current town, especially if more such projects come online like the Corner at Brush Creek.”

Tod Colvin owns the property adjacent to the Whetstone parcel and he made clear it is literally his front yard. While complementing the county for its communication and collaboration, he said they had helped them come up with “tolerable alternatives” to deal with the project impacts. He made clear that he and the Whetstone Mountain Ranch subdivision had no interest in being annexed into town.

Architect and planner for Coburn Partners, Pete Weber, said if the experts determine the town has enough actual water for the project he can see no better way to use it than for such a project “addressing a vast need for the community. 231 units can make a good dent in the problem.”

George Gibson has been consistent in voicing his concerns to both the town and county and he did so again. “In nine months the town will have to make a decision about extending the utilities and it will be under great pressure to do so or the project will be delayed. The town needs to use the Community Compass framework to identify what is right for that project. I’ve been asking for months to have the two large buildings next to the highway moved back because no matter how good the design, you can’t see through buildings. That is like putting lipstick on a pig…it is still a pig. I also think having the buildings there creates the ‘have nots’ having to deal with the highway and its noise while the ‘haves’ get to be away from the noise and closer to the river with their cars.”

Local housing advocate Susan Kearns suggested the town look for ways other than annexing to supply the water and wastewater service. 

John Hess asked that if the town provided tap fee breaks as is normal for deed restricted units, who would make up the cost difference? The former town planner also said Coal Creek can be relatively dry at certain times of the year and wanted to make sure enough real water was available.

Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ said the county was hiring an engineering firm to take a detailed look at the water availability issue and a report should be done by summer.

Hess then suggested that if the town was seriously considering annexation, perhaps it should be doing the review process and not the county. And he expressed worry that town services like playing fields would be overwhelmed quickly with another 500 to 700 residents. “The buildings should be very energy efficient along with affordable…so I’m not sure you how you do that,” he said.

Mark Tardiff said one reason to annex would be to have 700 workers being able to vote and have a voice in Crested Butte’s future. 

Erika Vohman liked the idea of young workers being able to live close to town since Crested Butte appeared to be growing older. She advocated for “plenty of rentals to be included.”

Jim Starr cited a Chamber of Commerce poll that indicated 85% of local businesses supported the project. “This shows a real need for this housing,” he said. “We need to provide workforce housing or sales tax will decline. This project can make a difference in the valley.”

Council comments

The council, staff and proponents addressed some of the issues. Public Works director Shea Earley said engineers will analyze the town’s facility capacity to service the project. He said Coal Creek had never been an issue supplying town water so long-term drought or climate change impacts on water supply were not being considered in detail. “But the study will look at additional buffer capacity available,” he said.

Gunnison County’s John Cattles said initial engineering indicated the town facilities have capacity to take on the 231 units. “But the next study will take a very thorough look at the water situation,” he said.

Mayor Ian Billick said it was his understanding the town had access to plenty of water under its control, but everyone wanted a handle on how much that was. “It’s a complex issue. Will the engineering study pick up some of the secondary impacts of the water issue or will it be pretty simple?”

Earley said the more detailed analysis is already being discussed. “Immediate and long-term costs should be taken into account and analyzed,” he said. “It will all need to be replaced eventually.”

Town manager Dara MacDonald said as far as annexing the property, that would be a separate negotiation with the county. She said the town could annex the property without annexing nearby property like Colvin’s. “It’s painful and will take a lot of time but a ‘flagpole’ annexation can be done with an extensive process. We do want to get the temperature of the council on pursuing annexation.”

Russ said the staff could prepare a pros and cons analysis of annexation. He said there would certainly be impacts with things like taking care of the roads, snow removal, and with the marshal’s department and parks and rec department.

Cattles implored the council to not pursue an annexation immediately if at all. “As Dara said, an annexation is a negotiation, but the county would prefer you not annex, at least not in the design and construction phase. We are talking to potential developers and they are looking at the county process,” he explained. “Confusing or opaque processes kill most projects with a developer. We want to be clear what the goalposts are for whatever developer comes on board.”

“What about other things like traffic and school capacity?” asked councilmember Gabi Prochaska.

Russ said some items like traffic will be documented in the county review process. School impacts might not be included.

“The council is looking for how the project will fit in with North Valley growth and expansion,” said Billick. “We want to get an idea of the holistic impacts on the north end of the valley with things like the school, the trade parade, the buses.”

“I urge you all to consider the cost of inaction and not just the cost to the valley and the town,” said assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano.

When asked about timing, Cattles said the project would be phased since there isn’t the workforce to construct 231 units quickly. “But once the infrastructure is in, the units need to generate revenue, so the county is looking to move it along quickly. I would estimate a four-to-five-year build-out,” he said. He indicated the goal was to have 80 or 90% of the units be rentals depending on what the developer advises. Cattles said the project will be all electric and geo-thermal will be used. The timing of the roundabout on the highway adjacent to the project is not yet known.

Local housing consultant Willa Williford who is working with the county said the project needs to be sequenced with other similar projects like Crested Butte’s Mineral Point. She estimated the area could absorb 40 to 60 new affordable units a year.

Council indicated unanimous support for the workforce housing concept but asked for a list of the evening’s questions to be compiled so they could review them at the March 6 meeting and pass them along to the county. Council members were in favor of gathering more information on the pros and cons of annexation and they will discuss that at the March 6 meeting as well.

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