Clock ticking for Middle Creek
Opponents could use the appeal schedule, dictated by the Vail Town Code, in their favor, while proponents would likely lobby leaders to work fast to overturn or uphold a decision.Just delaying Middle Creek, in fact, could topple one of Vail’s largest proposed affordable housing projects, says the developer of the proposed, 142-unit affordable apartment complex.”I think that is their strategy,” says Mike Coughlin of Coughlin & Company.”There isn’t a strategy – absolutely not,” replies Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners’ Association, a group of property owners who oppose Middle Creek. “These are real questions to real issues.”Lamont represents Vail’s largest group of property owners – second homeowners, who are estimated to make up 70 percent of Vail’s residential property owners. Just two days ago, he grilled town officials about the schedule of the appeals process. He says his inquiry was designed to inform opponents, as well as proponents, of their rights before Vail’s Planning and Environmental Commission, or PEC, and the Design Review Board, or DRB.”If there is a negative decision by the PEC and DRB, the proponents can call it up too,” he says.Lamont says the association isn’t planning to appeal or delay the project, but will be pushing for a review of the project before the council.”This is very serious, controversial community issue,” he says. “The council has a responsibility to hear people’s concerns on this so that the passions will leave the PEC and DRB and they can deal with the practical issues.”Time running outCoughlin, however, says time is tight.”The deadlines are the deadlines,” he says. “Originally we had one for Sept. 15, so we already got an extension. The key here is to get this done. Otherwise, these agencies will review and assess if their resources can be better used elsewhere.”And in order to make good on $15 million in public financing from Eagle County, the Colorado Division of Housing and the State Department of Local Affairs – as well as tax credits worth $3 million – Middle Creek as a project has to be approved by Oct. 31, Coughlin says.Additionally, Coughlin says, low interest rates and a competitive construction market are crucial to make the project cheaper – and, in the end, more affordable for the tenants.”It is all linked together. You can’t preserve bits and pieces of the financing,” he says. “If we don’t get going next year, we are looking at a completely different financing picture.”The Denver-based developer specializes in affordable-housing projects and has been involved in 45 low-income housing proposals around the state.”We wanted to come to Vail and do an affordable housing project here because it would help preserve the local work force,” Coughlin says, adding that looking back “our expectations of how difficult it would be have been vastly exceeded.”Boards’ scope limitedDespite two dozen public meetings and major re-design, both the PEC and the DRB have punted a final decision this week, citing rockfall hazards and the visual impact of a four-story wall.Instead of giving final approvals, both boards have chosen to act in concert, promising to make a final decision after a joint work session next week.Though the arguments have been largely emotional and political, the two boards are limited in their spectrum of review the town’s design and zoning codes and master plans.Costly consequencesCoughlin says a dead project would have consequences – beyond a local work force burdened by high rent, long commutes and parking pressures.”When you apply for grants, track record is everything. The environment for financing of affordable housing projects is incredibly competitive,” Coughlin says. “If Middle Creek is going down it is going to be a problem for our firm and it is going to be a problem for the town.”Coughlin says he was “thrilled” by the “show of support” Monday, when 11 opponents faced off against 15 supporters. But he says he isn’t sure yet if his firm is willing to pay the ultimate price for sticking with a project that may already be doomed.”We are really assessing the situation right now,” Coughlin says. “I am disappointed in (the PEC’s) decision).”Concerns about rockfall and views of a four-story wall be addressed with a set of conditions tacked to a final approval.Coughlin says he could ask the two board to table the project indefinitely, then go to lending agencies to allocate the promised funds elsewhere, leaving the town without a project. But as of Monday, the developer wasn’t ready to call it quits.”We worked really hard and we felt we should have easily received final approval,” he says. “I wish I could tell you today what we are going to do, but I can’t.”How delays could doom Middle CreekThe PEC’s Monday decision to delay a final vote on the project for two weeks was a partial victory to opponents, as anyone with a valid concern can appeal a decision by the PEC or DRB within 10 days.Likewise, the Town Council can “call-up” a decision and review it voluntarily.”Essentially someone could ask the council to review a decision by the PEC or the DRB for issue X,” says Russell Forrest, Vail’s community development director. “If X indeed opens up a valid question, the council reviews it and can either uphold the PEC or DRB’s decision, remand it back with specific instructions or overturn the decision.”A council review of an appeal has to take place within 15 days.So, in the case of Middle Creek, the deadline for public financing committments is Oct. 31. If the DRB and the PEC indeed make a final decision in favor of the project Sept. 9, opponents could appeal it as late as Sept. 19, two days past the last regular council meeting for the month of September.That would push a council hearing on the appeal to Oct. 1.If the council remands any issues back to the two boards or overturns any decision, the boards wouldn’t get to work on correcting the issues until mid-October, says Forrest, which would likely render the project dead.Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at email@example.com.