Town and county agree to reset on Whetstone

Taking the time to do it right

By Mark Reaman

After a vigorous discussion two weeks ago between representatives of Crested Butte and Gunnison County over emerging timing, regulatory and financing details of the Whetstone affordable housing project south of Crested Butte, this week the two entities agreed to take a breath, regroup and better partner with how to address the issues.

“There was a lot going on at that last meeting. It was a very complex discussion,” said Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick, who penned a letter for the council to consider for public consumption at the February 20 meeting. The proposed letter asked pointed questions and solicited direct answers to several issues that emerged from the February 5 meeting.

“My intent with the letter was not to imply we would not support the project or demand certain things of the county but to capture the thoughts and prompt conversation,” Billick said. 

That it did.

The proposed letter stated that the town has taken several actions to move the project forward and been very clear throughout the process about what it wanted to see before agreeing to provide utilities. It made clear the town was feeling rushed with demands made by the county at the last meeting to help meet guidelines for a $10 million grant. 

The draft letter also emphatically expressed disappointment with the county’s independent action toward starting corridor planning in the North Valley by issuing a Request for Proposals for a planning consultant without informing the town. The letter indicated the county didn’t appear to be doing enough to facilitate “meaningful solutions to mass transit, traffic impacts and managing sprawl…the town wants to see Whetstone happen but not necessarily at all costs to sustainability and the livability of the north valley and Crested Butte.” That touched on the town’s insistence that a roundabout with a pedestrian underpass be part of the intersection by the 255-unit Whetstone development so residents could easily access RTA buses on the highway.

Town staff shared the draft letter with county officials, and last week assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano responded that it could be a good time to take a brief timeout. “We’ve heard the concerns of council and staff and would like to pause and take time to address the questions and concerns expressed,” she wrote. “We do not anticipate submission of the land use change permit application within the next 6-8 weeks to allow us time work through the issues raised.”

“Given the communication from the county, I recommend we set this letter aside for now and allow the county to methodically work through the issues and come back for further discussion,” suggested Billick. “The more time taken to think about a project of this magnitude, the better.”

He asked council for their input, and the consensus was that if the letter is to be published, it should take a “softer” tone. 

“I would ask for more clarity on the timing with the need to be in the ground this summer to retain the grant and I think the last paragraph could use softer language and express the desire for more collaboration,” suggested councilmember Anna Fenerty.

Councilmember Jason MacMillan agreed. “I would strike some of the wording and soften it a bit,” he said. “I think we could further explain to the public the reasons the three mile plan and corridor plan is so important up here and why Crested Butte needs to be a stakeholder in that planning from the beginning.”

In Pagano’s letter, the county indicated they had perhaps moved too fast in starting a process to address corridor planning. “We have heard the Town’s concerns about the release of the RFP for the corridor plan,” she wrote. “We understand that the Town desires to be part of that effort and that it should be initiated and developed in a collaborative fashion. We have cancelled the RFP. This will result in the loss of the $150,000 grant. When we all determine that we are ready to commence the work we will need to secure adequate funds to support the project.”

County manager Matthew Birnie told the Crested Butte News on Tuesday about the change in plans for the corridor planning grant. He characterized the situation as an “unintentional miscommunication with the Town of Crested Butte. We withdrew [the RFP] so we could better coordinate the effort with their input,” he said.

Regarding the roundabout, Pagano said the county is hopeful to obtain a transportation infrastructure grant to fully pay for the improvement that includes a pedestrian underpass. “We are analyzing opportunities for how to address the approval, funding, and installation of the underpass. If you have suggestions we are open to them,” she stated. “We are finalizing our submission for a RAISE grant next week which would fund the entire intersection/ underpass project. This will be our second application, the first was well received and we were encouraged to resubmit so we are hopeful we will be successful this round.”

“It seems to me the proposed letter was successful and given Cathie’s response it’s not a letter that needs to go forward right now,” said councilmember Kent Cowherd. “I also better understand that the $10 million grant is part of a $135 million project so it wouldn’t necessarily put the whole project in jeopardy. Maybe put the letter in a drawer for now.”

Birnie also told commissioners on Tuesday they were looking at ways to get an extension for that $10 million grant.

“They asked for more time, and I think we should give them more time,” agreed Billick.

Billick also said that when the time is appropriate the town might consider helping to fund the corridor planning process to help make up for the $150,000 grant that was returned. “And if we think this is an important project, and we do given the number of units, I think the town might contribute to making it a livable project,” he said.

There was no public comment on the issue and the council agreed to set aside the draft letter for the time being. “Let’s wait and see where the county goes with this,” suggested Billick. “I think we all appreciate their commitment to do it right.”

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