Months of review ahead for ‘major’ land-use change
By Alan Wartes Times Staff Writer
In recent weeks, the question of whether to allow a large-scale affordable housing development on a parcel of land south of Crested Butte owned by a consortium of local governments and a major business — and what such a development should look like — has become a community hot potato. Soon it will officially land in the hands of the Gunnison County Planning Commission. According to Gunnison County Community and Economic Development Director Cathie Pagano, Gatesco — the Texas firm proposing to pursue the project — submitted an application for a major land-use change permit from the county last week. Pagano and staff are presently confirming the application is complete before forwarding it to the Planning Commission or making it available to the public.
“We’ve found it’s less confusing to be sure that what the commission and the public sees is the final, completed application,” Pagano said. She expects the document to be available online in about a week. On Tuesday, County Commissioners approved the receipt of the application and the initiation of the review process, expected to take a year, or more. At present, the Gatesco plan calls for a 240-unit housing complex, at least 50 percent of which would be devoted to deed restricted housing for occupants whose earnings fall below 140 percent of area median income in the Gunnison Valley. As envisioned, units would range from 500-square-foot efficiencies up to three-bedroom apartments. Development amenities could include a community garden, a shared bike fleet, trails, playgrounds and a transit center for buses. Two decades in the making The 17-acre parcel in question — located at the intersection of Brush Creek Road and Hwy. 135 — was acquired by Gunnison County in 1998, in partnership with Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR), the Town of Crested Butte and the Town of Mt. Crested Butte. A memorandum of agreement crafted at the time between the four entities expressed their intention to use the land for affordable workforce housing, among other possible things. The Gatesco application is the result of a Request for Qualifications published by the county last February — followed by a Request for Proposals in May. Those documents sought a suitable developer for a public-private partnership aimed at boosting available housing in the valley. Th e idea was to sell the land at a reduced rate in exchange for a guaranteed number of workforce housing units. Last year, a Gunnison Valley Regional Housing Authority (GVRHA) needs assessment confirmed what community members already knew — a significant shortage of housing in the valley in general, and, in particular, a lack of units at prices that average wage earners can afford. As a result, GVRHA set the strategic goal of facilitating the construction of 400 new units by 2020. County Commissioners followed suit, writing a target of 200 new units by the same date into their strategic plan. “All the partnering entities decided the time for this project is ripe, based on the One Valley Prosperity Project findings and the housing needs assessment and input from their constituents,” said Pagano. However, some in the community have objected to the speed with which negotiations with Gatesco have proceeded — and the proposed density and configuration of the project. In late August an organization called the Friends of Brush Creek (FOBC) formed, specifically to address concerns about the project. Th e group is made up of representatives of seven communities in the neighborhood of the Brush Creek parcel. “ We formed the group because we did not feel we were getting a lot of transparency from the county,” said Bob Pannier, FOBC president. “We were asking a lot of questions, but not getting a lot of answers. This is a significant development right in our backyard with a lot of potential impacts.” In particular, Pannier said, the group is concerned about the proposed density of the project and its potential impact on traffic and Crested Butte schools, for example. “We’re talking about seven communities here spread out over thousands of acres that has the same population as what’s proposed on somewhere around 13 acres,” Pannier said. “It’s not really in keeping with the community out here.” Speed of process a point of contention Some letters to the editor of the Times in recent weeks have raised the suspicion that negotiations with Gatesco have included promises of an expedited approval process, or other “backroom” deals away from public scrutiny. An e-mail from FOBC attorney David Leinsdorf to County Manager Matthew Birnie, to which the Times was given access, highlighted the group’s concern over the speed of the process to date. “Even if there’s no ‘backroom deal’, any objective observer would understand why citizens who have been kept in the dark, are alarmed that the review process may be a charade,” he wrote. “It’s not too late, before a contract is finally negotiated and agreed upon, to open up the process and allow some light to shine on the deal that’s being forged to sell this important and visible public property.” Birnie responded in an e-mail. “The County has a robust, even arduous, land use process during which all elements of the proposal will be subject to public review and input. The contemplated deal structure is intended to clarify that the sale doesn’t guarantee approval of any particular proposal and will give parties an opportunity to exit if such approval is not achieved through the public process.” According to Pagano, now that an application has been received, the review and approval process will include no fewer than two public hearings and numerous public meetings at which details of the proposal will be “thoroughly” examined. “Just like any other project we deal with, the question now is, is this really an appropriate project for that location now?” said County Attorney David Baumgarten. “Th ere should be a robust conversation about those things, and that’s what we trust the Planning Commission to do. Let that process shake this proposal out.”
(Alan Wartes can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or alan@ gunnisontimes.com.)