Minturn upholds mikvah decision at crowded meeting
Planning commission upholds staff interpretation of town code
Before a packed town hall in Minturn on Tuesday night, the town planning commission heard arguments, and a whole lot more, regarding a recent decision allowing a bathing house known as a mikvah to be built in the historic mining town.
The planning commission, after receiving an appeal from local resident Kelly Toon, called the special meeting to review Planning Director Scot Hunn’s August decision saying the mikvah is allowable in the Old Town Character Area 100 Block Commercial Zone District.
The commission decided in a 4-1 vote that the mikvah is allowed, giving much thanks to the meeting’s many outspoken attendees. Planning commissioners are appointed to the town’s planning commission by the town council.
Town Attorney Mike Sawyer said Toon’s appeal was the first planning director decision he has seen reach the formal appeals process in Minturn.
In his appeal, Toon said the mikvah appeared to fit the definition of a church more than a club, and while a club is allowed under the town code, a church is not.
Before the public portion of the meeting began, Sawyer met in executive session with the commission. Upon returning to open session, Sawyer pointed out that ordinarily a land use issue would involve local and state statutes, but in this case, there was also a federal layer to consider, as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits governments from imposing burdens on or denying equal terms to religious land-use applicants.
Complicating the issue was the fact that the mikvah seeks a location in a building estimated to be more than 100 years old and seen as a crucial part of the town’s character, located on Main Street in the 100 block of the downtown area.
The first of more than a dozen local residents to speak out on the issue showed the commission a painting of the building to illustrate its significance to the town. Many subsequent speakers spoke about the need to preserve town history and character in the area.
Speaking on behalf of the developer, Kyle H. Webb with KHWebb Architects put the crowd at ease when he told everyone the house could be saved and restored.
“I’m not from New York, or Denver, I live in Edwards, I’ve been in Vail for 33 years now, and I know many of the people in this room,” Webb said. “If the goal of this group is to save the house, and keep that there, that’s not a problem.”
The meeting shifted focus at times to the discussion of creating a historic preservation district in Minturn and what that would involve. Many residents who spoke expressed a desire to see this outcome. Toon, in his testimony before the committee, said part of his motivation in filing the appeal was the urgency he felt in trying to save the building.
Planning commissioner Jena Skinner voted to approve the mikvah, saying the town staff appeared to interpret the code as a club “in line with what other jurisdictions have found and established.”
“I do love the historic aspect of the site, and that’s going to come up again when they come forward with their limited review,” she said.
Holes in the code
Commissioner Jeff Armistead said the mikvah issue exemplifies his opinion that there’s are “glaring holes” in the town code.
“There’s nowhere in town are you allowed to do anything religious, by right,” Armistead said. “And it also doesn’t say that you can’t do it, it just doesn’t address it at all.”
Board chair Lynn Teach referenced several religious organizations she has seen come and go in her 37 years in Minturn, including the popular resale shop Holy Toledo, which was once a Presbyterian Church.
“We had a Masonic temple in a small house years ago,” she said. “So this is not the first time. Even though our code says no churches, we do allow them.”
Teach, in voicing her approval of the mikvah, said it could stimulate the atmosphere on the 100 block of Main Street in Minturn.
“It still adds to the mix, it makes it more interesting,” she said. “And it might bring some new customers to town.”
Armistead also said the mikvah could add “another feature in the cap of what makes Minturn funky.“
Planning Commissioner Tom Priest agreed with Armistead in his assertion that the town’s code is deficient. But while Armistead voted in favor of the mikvah, Priest disagreed, saying the town code should first be amended to allow the mikvah, rather than putting “a square peg in a round hole.”
“So the reality is, this town has a significant legal problem, because we have a total exclusion of the issue under religious use,” Priest said.
Priest pointed out that more robust public participation in town processes could have pre-empted the need for the meeting, which attracted a large crowd and 14 speakers from the public.
“I would like everybody to sit back a minute and recognize, as was noted multiple times, the turnout tonight was tremendous, and it should lend itself for you to consider this same level of need for involvement when it comes to code utilization, and town’s strategic plan,” Priest said. “That has to happen, you need to be there, you’re a resident of this town, that was clearly stated here at the podium multiple times.”