County still navigating bumps in road toward Whetstone start

Utilities, roundabout, bond funding…

By Mark Reaman

Ideally, Gunnison County would like to break ground on the 255-unit Whetstone affordable housing project south of Crested Butte near Brush Creek Road late this fall before the snow flies. However the realistic expectation from county officials developing the estimated $130 million project is that work will likely start a year from now in the spring of 2025.

Assistant county manager for operations and sustainability John Cattles is a point person for the development and he said the county is still ironing out details of a potential water and sewer utility extension with the town of Crested Butte. He said the county will pay all the costs of the extension, but negotiations are ongoing over the so-called “buy-in fee” to join the town’s utility system. “The Town will not have to spend any money on the utility connection and will get additional users paying monthly fees,” Cattles said. “Also, the county will own and maintain all of the new infrastructure from the tie-in point throughout Whetstone so the Town will not have any additional ongoing costs from the extension. The only thing we are not including yet is the buy-in fee to the Town’s systems. We want to discuss that fee further with the Town and hope to eliminate or significantly reduce it.”

Crested Butte town manger Dara MacDonald said there are continuing costs associated with adding that many new customers to the system. “We appreciate the county’s repeated statements of their commitment for the Whetstone project to be treated like all other customers of the water and sewer utility,” she said. “We have provided the county with our estimates of the buy-in and service fees for the project and are awaiting feedback and further discussion.”

Going round and round on the roundabout…

One of the biggest unresolved issues is the concept of building a roundabout with a pedestrian underpass on Highway 135 at the entrance to the 13-acre development. Cattles said that project is estimated to cost about $8.5 million and the county is hoping to obtain grants totaling $10 million so it can also include improved multi-modal path connections that intersect the underpass.

“The County has spent money on the engineering of the intersection and paid for studies required to apply for federal funding,” he said. “We have also acquired land on both sides of the highway for the underpass connection and the roundabout.”

Cattles said the county doesn’t have the funding sources or budget to spend on the road improvements directly. He emphasized that counties are prohibited by state law from using general funds on roads. “The funding we receive from the state for our roads is insufficient to cover even our existing needs. We’ve been able to backfill the public works budget with non-general fund resources like excise tax revenues that the state redirects to counties, but those sources are just enough to maintain current operations and are unreliable,” he said. “Brush Creek improvements will have to come from state or federal funding. We are applying for all possible funding opportunities.”

Alternative traffic calming ideas for Brush Creek intersection

Cattles said the roundabout remains a priority for the county and it will be pursued even if Whetstone is built out. “Our understanding is that CDOT also wants to see the roundabout constructed and is aligned with our intention to build out the intersection as proposed as quickly as possible,” he said. “Gunnison County staff has met with the town of Crested Butte staff, along with RTA and Mountain Express staff to explore options to provide safe pedestrian and bike access to the Whetstone neighborhood while we pursue funding for a roundabout and underpass. We’ve had collaborative discussions with these transportation providers and experts to identify both interim and permanent solutions that could be implemented concurrent with the project.”

Ideas discussed include a regional transit stop being placed inside Whetstone, having the county pay for a seasonal shuttle to serve Whetstone residents until the roundabout is complete (expected to be hundreds of thousands of dollars annually) or installing traffic calming measures and pedestrian safety measures on Highway 135 to slow traffic prior to a roundabout being constructed. 

“The traffic calming we have in mind would be a combination of things like an island for pedestrian refuge and perhaps other structures along the road to slow traffic (combined with lower speed signs of course) and a warning light that pedestrians could press when crossing, not a stop light,” Cattles explained. “We are not sure what CDOT will support but they’ve allowed similar mitigation strategies in other places, such as Buena Vista which is a four-lane highway. We are beginning to develop proposals for CDOT to review now.

“We want it to be and feel safe so folks will use transit and walk or bike on the trail to town even while we work on the ultimate solution,” Cattles continued. “That’s why we are proposing interim solutions until the underpass is funded and built.”

Surprise! Money is an important issue

Cattles said the county needs to proceed with Whetstone while continuing to work on funding the intersection since the highest priority is building workforce housing. Having to pay for the roundabout without state and federal grants would increase average rents in Whetstone by about $2,850 annually. “The project will not be sustainable or meet our policy goals to serve the community workforce if the project costs continue to rise,” he admitted.

The Crested Butte town council and staff have been consistent in stating the need for the roundabout. “The town council remains firm in their expectation of a roundabout and pedestrian underpass to adequately serve the 250+ households in the Whetstone development,” MacDonald reiterated this week.

For the county, the bottom line is that higher building and development costs impact rents. “At $130 million we can maintain average rents at 125% AMI (Area Median Income).  Actual individual rents will start at 80% AMI and go up to market rates. Our goal is to keep these AMIs as low as possible,” emphasized Cattles. “We feel this average is near the top of what is possible while still serving the community need and we’re working to drive average rents lower by cutting costs, securing more grants, and through potential alternative financing strategies that may reduce finance costs to the project.”

Practically, that means rents would be approximately $1,680 a month for a two-bedroom unit for those in the 80% AMI category. The average rent lands at the 125% AMI which converts to about $2,600 a month for a two-bedroom unit for three people.

As for financing the cost of development, Cattles said aside from potential grants, the county will use tax-exempt bonds. He said they will go to market to issue that debt once all permits are in place and the county is ready to start work. “Once debt is issued, we will have to start making payments so we must make sure we minimize the time between debt issuance and when we get units occupied and start collecting rent,” he concluded. “There is an outside chance we may be able to start some work in the late fall before snow flies but more likely we will start in the spring of 2025.”

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