Pitkin Co. wary of new teacher housing plan
Vail, CO Colorado
ASPEN, Colorado ” What comes first ” growth control or teacher housing?
That was the issue at a recent joint meeting of the Aspen School District Board of Education and the Pitkin County commissioners.
Several commissioners expressed concerns about the School District’s tentative plan to build teacher housing on its Woody Creek property, noting the land is outside of the county’s urban growth boundary.
But school board members said that teacher housing is a critical need for the district, and they argued the Woody Creek property ” which they call West Ranch ” is the district’s best option for building cost-effective housing for as many teachers as possible.
The School District recently put a $12 million teacher housing bond issue on the November ballot. At Tuesday’s meeting, school board chair Elizabeth Parker explained that each year, as older teachers retire, the teachers who move in find they cannot afford to live in Aspen.
Some incoming hires are forced to renege on their contracts each year when they cannot find a place to live, said Parker. Others stay a few years and then leave, saying they love the area but can’t envision ever being able to afford to live here. With only 20 affordable units, she said, the district isn’t able to meet the needs of its roughly 200 staff members.
Parker also noted that the community seems to understand that the lack of teacher housing is a serious issue facing the district. In a recent survey, respondents identified “teachers and pay” as the biggest problem facing the district and “teacher housing” as the second greatest problem.
Parker explained that the board would ideally like to purchase free-market housing downvalley and build 12 units on a five-acre West Ranch property. The district built 10 units on an adjoining property in 1999. West Ranch was purchased by the district in 1998 for the purposes of teacher housing, according to Superintendent Diana Sirko.
But Commissioner Rachel Richards raised the issue of Pitkin County’s urban growth boundary, which was, she said, “radically” pulled in during a 2000 update, due to concerns about sprawl. West Ranch is outside the urban growth boundary.
Commissioner Michael Owsley compared the problem to the issue the county had with its property near Cozy Point. Though the county wanted to develop affordable housing there, it eventually decided dense growth ” even for affordable housing ” was unacceptable outside the urban growth boundary.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said outright that he could not support multi-family housing outside the urban growth boundary. He suggested the district sell its land and invest its money in more appropriate areas ” as the county plans to do. He also suggested the district look into being more creative with the land it has.
“Have you thought about putting housing on your parking lot?” he asked.
But school board member Laura Kornasiewicz pointed out that the campus was already crowded. By national standards, she said, a campus serving a district the size of Aspen’s school population should have 61 acres. The Aspen campus, she said, is 27 acres.
“So we are, already, on top of each other,” said Kornasiewicz.
And school board member Ernie Fyrwald said that a sale of the five-acre lot simply wouldn’t generate the income to purchase enough housing within the urban growth boundary.
Parker explained that the district is still looking at the possibility of building teacher housing on all its district-owned property ” including the parking lot and the bus barn”but that every site had its issues.
“Everything’s problematic,” she said.
Unlike most landowners in the county, the Aspen School District is not subject to county building codes and does not have to go through the county building process. Commissioner Dorthea Farris noted that the commissioners were well aware the school districts have the right “to do whatever they want” with their land, but noted that cooperation between the two entities was important.
“I think that we have got to work together,” she said.
After the meeting, Superintendent Diana Sirko said that while the district wants to be respectful of the county’s desire not to add density outside the urban growth boundary, the West Ranch property is the only vacant land it owns.
“So we certainly want to explore our options there,” she said.
But Hatfield said that if the district pursues a plan to build housing at West Ranch, he will seek a legal opinion from the county attorney regarding whether or not the county has the right to avoid review even when it builds on land outside its campus.
“Unfortunately, this is a potential conflict and I do not look forward to it,” he said.
Hatfield noted that in 2001, the district approached the county commissioners for permission to re-zone the West Ranch property in order to build teacher housing. In what was reportedly an emotionally-charged meeting, the commissioners denied the request, with Commissioner Dorthea Farris dissenting. Owsley ” not then a member of the Board of County Commissioners ” spoke against the project as chair of the Woody Creek Caucus.
Hatfield speculated that the district had now sought and received a different legal opinion and decided to challenge the county’s decision.
However, it appears that the 2001 denial was for a subdivision that included both teacher housing at West Ranch and the construction of three free-market homes at Aspen Valley Ranch. The public-private partnership between the district and Mary Jane Garth would have provided the district with a creative way to finance the project. However it required re-zoning for both the property owned by the district and the property owned by Garth.