Eagle mall likely to face election
EAGLE, Colorado ” Almost since the day it was first proposed, referendum talk has percolated around the proposed Eagle River Station project in Eagle, Colorado.
Now, as the project closes in on its final hearings before the Eagle Town Board, that rhetoric is swelling on all sides of the issue. Even members of the Town Board are joining the referendum debate.
“If we are going to have a project of this scope in the town, there’s a case to be made that we, as a community, should be involved in deciding that direction,” says Eagle Mayor Ed Woodland.
He has support in that analysis. But that’s one of the few areas of agreement when it comes to Eagle River Station.
Eagle River Station is a retail/residential project proposed by Trinity/RED Development on an 88-acre tract at eastern end of Eagle, south of Interstate 70. The proposal includes 552,000 square feet of commercial space including a 132,000 square foot anchor store and a ‘Lifestyle Center’ shopping area featuring outdoor, Main Street-inspired design.
There also is a 150-room hotel, 581 homes and a new Interstate 70 interchange.
Opponents argue the size and scope of the development doesn’t fit with Eagle’s small-town character. Supporters counter that Eagle needs the sales tax revenue the project could generate.
For now, the project is entering its sixth month of town board review. The board may vote on the measure in the next few weeks. Then the clock starts ticking for residents to circulate a petition to force an election; or, the town board could call for a town vote.
What would the Eagle River Station developers prefer? They aren’t saying.
“Our goal right now is to get through the town board vote,” says Paul Witt of Witt Communications, a local public relations firm working for Trinity/RED.
The developers are well aware that many people around Eagle see a referendum as a foregone conclusion. “We know that this is a big decision for the town trustees. It’s a big decision for the town as a whole,” says Witt.
Jan Rosenthal Townsend has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Eagle River Station. She’s promised to launch a petition drive if the town board approves the development. Judging by letters to the editor, she has a vocal group of supporters who would support the effort.
“Although there are varying opinions and most people would prefer not to go through the brain damage of a referendum, the Citizens for Eagle, in general, favors a referendum if, and only if, the town board votes yes,” says Townsend. “But we feel it is very important that the council vote first since they are elected officials and we want to see where they stand.”
If, on the other hand, the town council were to vote against Eagle River Station, referendum options become more muddied. Not surprisingly, the Citizens for Eagle say that if the project is rejected that vote should stick, particularly since the Eagle Planning and Zoning Commission has twice recommended against large-scale commercial development at Eagle River Station.
But supporters could bring the issue up for a vote if the town board rejected Eagle River Station, but it would be a much more difficult fight. Under this scenario, even if town residents approved the development, the end result would still find the town board setting conditions on a development that they had already rejected.
“The people who really support Eagle River Station have discussed it going to referendum,” says proponent Francis Roliter. “We believe it will go to a vote because that’s what the public expects.”
That may be, but deciding land use by election isn’t commonplace. Eagle officials can’t recall a such a vote happening in recent history. But the town can look upvalley for a referendum example.
In July 2006, Vail voters overwhelmingly approved the Solaris complex to replace the aging Crossroads building. Opponents petitioned for the referendum, which came after the Vail Town Council voted 4-3 to approve the development.
Some painted the two sides of the debate as a “new Vail” versus “old Vail” battle. Opponents included longtime residents, some who were considered Vail founders. Opponents said the proposal was too big and too bulky and would hurt the village ambiance of Vail. They said it set a precedent for over-development in the community.
On the other side, proponents said the project would bring life back to Vail. Ultimately, the proposal passed with 70 percent of voters in favor of it.
Merv Lapin, an outspoken opponent of the Solaris plan, was one of the people who petitioned to bring the issue to a vote.
“I don’t regret doing it. I felt very strongly about a 10-story building and the added density in Vail Village,” says Lapin.
On the Eagle River Station plan, Lapin is on the other side of the debate. The former landowner and developer of a failed commercial proposal for the site, Lapin supports approval.
“The real issue is will the voters really understand the implications of Eagle River Station,” he says.
Eagle River Station isn’t the first large-scale development Eagle has considered. Back in the early 1990s, The Terrace subdivision doubled the community’s residential density. Eagle Ranch ” with its 1,200-plus units, commercial area and golf course ” was another big change for the community. Seen in that light, what makes Eagle River Station a referendum target?
It’s the combination of size and character, Woodland says.
A large shopping center is a whole new beast for the town, he adds.
If the Eagle River Station goes to a vote, Woodland notes both the developer and the Citizens for Eagle are positioned to duke it out for every one of Eagle’s 3,500 potential votes.
The fight has already started. The Citizens for Eagle have already sent out mailers to communicate their message. The developer is prepared to step up its lobbying efforts.
“If this goes to a referendum, we will certainly do anything we can to get our message out there,” says Michael Hans, of RED Development.
Ultimately, maybe an aggressive campaign is the best way to settle the Eagle River Station debate, Woodland says.
“Land-use decisions by referendum is a bad policy,” says Woodland. “But if we are going to have this development, it’s is certainly wise to check with the community at large.”