Now is not the time to talk Whetstone annexation…

A couple of weeks ago, Gunnison County’s John Cattles told the Crested Butte town council that the development team was “agnostic” about whether or not the town ultimately annexed the Whetstone affordable housing project being developed by the county. My guess is that the county is enthusiastically, but quietly, evangelical about the idea. Halleluiah!

If I’m the county and the town council says it wants to annex the development after it is built, I would be all in. Why wouldn’t you be? The county gets the credit for building it, collects the rents and then gets to turn over the expenses and liabilities that come with the development to someone else? Brilliant! Why not let the town pay for plowing the roads and maintaining the open spaces. When the roads need to be replaced, let the town write the check. 

The county isn’t obligated to pay town property tax whether Whetstone is annexed or not so the big financial bump comes through the expected increase in town sales tax revenue that will come from hundreds of new nearby residents buying stuff in CB. Some feel it is ethically responsible to include in the town the people that bump up that sales tax and work in the town to make tourism dollars easier to be spent. The town should no doubt step up with some tangible assistance with this housing project. Whether that’s through annexation is a huuuuge discussion. But generally, I see no reason for the county to not want the town to annex the project after it’s completed.

So, an annexation discussion is likely in the future if the town council and CB citizens decide on that path. But at the county’s request, this town council seemed to agree in principle to not begin formal annexation proceedings until after a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) is issued and people can start moving in. The idea is to not slow momentum toward a 2024 groundbreaking for the development. 

Yet some on the Crested Butte town council continue pushing the idea that they must keep discussing “annexation” right now. While appropriate to collaborate with the county to design and build the project to town standards that they would want if an annexation were ultimately approved, there is zero reason to discuss annexation amongst themselves or with the county unless they want to tangle up the Whetstone workforce housing strings. Just the preliminary idea of annexation is fraught with potential political landmines that need not be confronted until a formal process is started…something this council said will not happen any time soon.

It is not annexation negotiations that will provide the town council with any “leverage” to protect itself and get what councilmembers want from the developer (the county) to mitigate impacts that will come with 231 units and hundreds of new North Valley residents looking to use town services like its parks, marshals, streets etc. It will be the contract between the town and county to provide municipal water and sewer utilities to the project located two-and-a-half miles south of town near Brush Creek that matters. Continuing to talk “annexation” simply scratches a blister that irritates people.

So, I am perplexed that some on the council are focused on a masturbatory discussion about future annexation when the focus should be on what to include with a deal that brings utilities worth eight figures to the project. Maybe treat this the same as you would negotiations about annexation, without the annexation part. It is there that the town can work with the county to address some of the project impacts by, for example, including a field in what is now designated as “open space.” It is important that workers living in Whetstone feel they are part of a livable community and not just worker rats packed into buildings by a bus stop.

Annexation is a political desire for some on the council who would like to see future residents of Whetstone have a town voice through the ability to vote in Crested Butte. A good argument can be made for the tradeoff of diluting the votes of people living in Crested Butte proper to ensure that working people continue to have a say in the direction of the town. Or not. But that is a philosophical discussion that will occur when the town officially enters a formal annexation process and citizens get to officially weigh in on the idea before council makes a decision. Not now. 

No matter what, the units will need to be subsidized with public money. As evidenced by recent Paradise Park affordable housing cost estimates that were blown out of the water, it is just a matter of how much. This council should be looking at who helps pay for those subsidies in the long run. The county has said it wants to get to “yes” over this development and has made clear it is open to any idea and suggestions, both technical and philosophical, that the town has for Whetstone. That sounds like opportunity for both cooperative partnership and leverage. What is good for one entity in this case is probably good for both and the county and town can each provide expertise on certain issues that together will make the project better. The place to get concessions in writing, including those that might ultimately make annexation easier, is with the utility extension agreement.

Should the county be obligated to help pay for future project costs whether the property is annexed or not? Yes. 

The county can opt out of paying property taxes so when it comes to things like maintaining the parks, plowing the snow, eventually replacing the roads and sewer lines, or paying for personnel needed to keep the project a nice place to reside, should they not be committed to a percentage of those future costs? Mt. Crested Butte, with its dedicated affordable housing budget that brings in well more than $1 million annually, should be part of these financial conversations as well. So frankly, should the North Valley’s largest employer, Vail Resorts. Future residents will no doubt be working in both places.

There’s no real reason to keep bringing up “annexation” which is a politically charged idea to the people living in town. Town can take care of business without scratching the blister to the point it bleeds.

I would suggest focusing on what is needed to make this a good, livable place for local workers to reside first and foremost…and there is discussion on that very topic happening this week. County representatives say they are open to listening and building to town technical standards so that if an annexation occurs, the town won’t be taking over a lemon. Take the appropriate time and use the needed utility extension agreement to protect the town and make sure Crested Butte isn’t solely burdened with all the impacts and all the bills. That should be done through a detailed contract centered on water and sewer service because nothing happens without that. Halleluiah.

—Mark Reaman

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