Foes outnumber supporters in debate over Tree Farm development in El Jebel
The Aspen Times
The debate over the controversial Tree Farm development proposal in El Jebel intensified Thursday night with blistering criticism and fierce defense.
Roughly 25 people spoke on the project, with foes outnumbering supporters.
Proponents claimed the project would provide much-needed affordable housing and a model for sustainable development. Critics countered that the proposal will do little to help the Roaring Fork Valley’s working class.
“If you buy the product they’re trying to sell you, you’re just going to make it worse,” Elliot Branson said.
Kiko Trincoto responded that he and his young family are struggling to remain in the midvalley because of soaring rents. The Tree Farm could provide an opportunity to buy their first home, he said.
Trincoto said the people who are opposing the Tree Farm appear to be people who already own a house.
Critics skewered the potential impacts of the project, particularly traffic. Numerous speakers said it took them 10 minutes or more just to drive the short distance on Highway 82 from the stoplight at the El Jebel City Market to the Eagle County office building. But proponents claimed the project is a transit-oriented development that will reduce rather than add to congestion.
The debate arose during a public hearing held by the Eagle County commissioners in the fourth meeting they’ve held on project this spring. They weren’t ready to vote Thursday night and tabled discussion until June 26 in El Jebel.
The Tree Farm is in the second round of review. Landowner Ace Lane and his Woody Ventures LLC are seeking approval for 340 residences and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space. The housing includes 50 rental and sale units with price caps. Another 150 units would be designated resident-occupied with an opportunity but no guarantee they would be sold to Roaring Fork Valley residents. The sale prices wouldn’t be controlled on the RO units, leading critics to contend they won’t truly be affordable.
The proposal changed substantially since it was approved by a different batch of commissioners in the first round in 2009. At that time, Lane was seeking 319 residences, with 108 units of affordable housing, and 96,375 square feet.
Joe Edwards, a land use attorney and former Pitkin County commissioner who helped craft growth controls in the upper valley, said Eagle County is making a mistake allowing the project to change so drastically during the review. It keeps the public guessing on what’s next, he said.
“I know land-use applications and I know how they can be turned into smoke and mirrors,” Edwards said.
He contended the current plan’s lack of conformance with the earlier plan violated Eagle County’s land-use code and sets the government up for potential litigation.
Michael McVoy noted the development team wants the ability to sell the 150 resident-occupied units to people outside the valley if no eligible family buys them within 60 days. Lane also wants the ability to convert 60,000 square feet of the commercial space designated as a hotel into residential, if the hotel concept doesn’t fly.
“They are throwing proposals on the wall to see what sticks,” McVoy said. “You need to get a commitment to what the proposal is.”
County Attorney Beth Oliver defended the board’s ability to let the developer make changes to respond to input.
“I do not think it is a violation of our land-use code process. It happens all the time,” she said.
Lane brought a bonsai tree to the meeting and explained that it best exemplifies the beauty he is trying to achieve with the project. Lane, who has developed two projects in Garfield County near Catherine Store, said he isn’t really a developer, but someone interested in sustainability. He said he has 41,000 trees on his property and the green development will be the model of what needs to be done to combat climate change.
“I know people are afraid of growth. I understand it,” he said early in the meeting. “But what are we going to do about it?”
He received plenty of advice. Several speakers responded that he should reduce the size of his development plan.
“I’m not afraid of growth, I just don’t like it,” Patrice Becker said.
Lynn Nichols asked how 135,000 square feet of commercial space saves the planet.
Some speakers defended Lane’s motives. One man said many wealthy landowners in the Roaring Fork Valley simply wall themselves in and try to prevent development in their backyard. Instead, Lane is proposing a project in his backyard, the man said.
County officials gave somewhat conflicting assessments on the role of public input in their decision-making. The three commissioners thanked the audience members and assured them their input will help with the decision.
However, Oliver said it is up to the commissioners to decide what amount of weight to put behind the comments of citizens and the recommendations from Basalt town government and the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission.
The commissioners voted 6-0 to recommend denial of the project. Basalt is urging denial and wants Lane to apply to annex his property into the town. The county cannot require Lane to seek annexation, though denial might force his hand.
Oliver said the primary standard in the county review is how the application conforms to the county land-use code and the land-use master plan.
The commissioners, county staff and Lane’s development team spent more than two hours going over details of the code before the public hearing started.
“The public isn’t interested in that. The public is interested in the big picture,” McVoy chided.
Paul Cuthbertson set out by himself around 3 p.m. Friday from the trailhead that leads up to the Polar Star Inn, according to his father, Mike, but never made it to the popular backcountry hut as a late-spring snowstorm moved in.