Save Mid-Valley: Eagle County needs to hit pause on Tree Farm approval

Ken Ransford, Cathy Click and Joe Edwards
Valley Voices

On Tuesday, the Eagle County commissioners are scheduled to consider approval of the final plan for 340 new homes and 134,558 square feet of new commercial development on 43 acres immediately across Highway 82 from Willits. If the commissioners vote yes, work will likely begin on the controversial Tree Farm project this summer.

The Save Mid-Valley group respectfully asks the commissioners to delay Tuesday’s hearing until the appeal process to review the legal grounds of their earlier decisions is complete. This is your duty to your constituents in the Roaring Fork Valley. If construction begins on the Tree Farm, the appeals court may decline to rule — approving the final plan now could preempt the court to decide the issues.

So far, Eagle County government has largely discarded concerns about the project that hundreds of Eagle County residents have raised in dozens of hearings since 2009. That lack of consideration led to a lawsuit by concerned citizens that is currently before the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Our case is that the county has repeatedly violated and ignored its own land-use regulations.

  • The county is ignoring its own affordable housing rules by letting the project build only 30 units instead of either the 85 required in the code or the 169 units the developer agreed to provide when his sketch plan was approved in 2009.
  • The original planned unit development expired. This project dates back to 1993 when the PUD complied with the underlying “resource” zoning, which allows one home per 35 acres and limited commercial use. The PUD expired, but instead of canceling it, the county changed the zoning without following its own procedures. The county then approved a hotel and multifamily housing even though these uses are specifically barred in the resource zone.
  • The deadline for “preliminary plan” approval was 2013, but the county changed the expiration rules in 2012 without notifying us.  That allowed the project to move forward in 2016 and avoid the public process that would have no doubt dealt with the issues we are now struggling with.
  • The preliminary plan approved in 2017 does not look anything like the sketch plan approved in 2009. Eagle County has allowed the tree farm to morph into a project that will add to our housing and traffic woes.

The negative direct impacts of the proposed tree farm development are obvious to all who live here.

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  • Traffic woes: The Willits portion of Highway 82 is already the worst bottleneck between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. Adding 500-600 residents and more than 130,000 square feet of commercial space will clearly make it worse.
  • Housing: The tree farm provides very little affordable housing and does little to support the residents who already live here. Even as affordable housing is identified as a top priority for the area, the developer has somehow convinced the commissioners to build just 30 affordable-housing units in a project that will generate demand for more than 225 homes to house the workers who construct and service the massive new commercial space.
  • “Resident occupied” is not affordable for locals: The county maintains that the project will meet its affordable housing threshold because it will initially list 150 “resident occupied units” for qualified residents. But these units housing have no price limit. Two-bedroom condos have been selling for nearly $500,000 in nearby neighborhoods, indicating the price range for nearly 90 percent of the tree farm homes. Worse, if residents don’t buy them within 60 days, the resident-occupied requirement is lifted and the developer can sell them on the free market to nonresidents who don’t live and work here.

The Roaring Fork Planning Commission unanimously rejected the tree farm proposal in 2016. Eagle County nevertheless approved the project in 2017 on a split 2-1 commissioner vote.

Largely all of the issues we citizens have raised have been decided in favor of the owner and developer of the property. Now there is an opportunity to slow this down and let us have our concerns decided by the court.

If our appeal is denied, the county can proceed with approval this summer or fall. If our appeal is granted, the residents of the Roaring Fork Valley will have a chance to sit down with the project leaders and county officials and come up with a plan that works for the valley and the developer.

Ken Ransford, Cathy Click and Joe Edwards are Eagle County residents and members of Save Mid-Valley. Save Mid-Valley and Ken Ransford are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Eagle County over its approval of the tree farm, which is currently before the Colorado Court of Appeals.

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