Basalt councilman battles image as ‘growth guy’
During his campaign for a Basalt Town Council seat last spring, Glenn Rappaport actively battled a perception that he is, in his words, “the growth guy.”
But four months into the term he won, Rappaport has solidified his position as a consistent advocate for developers appearing before the council. He has taken the developers’ side in debates on four critical issues in recent weeks, sometimes drawing the ire of his fellow board members.
Rappaport said he feels he brings a broader understanding of issues to the council because he has worked with developers as an architect. “I’m the only person on that board that’s been on the other side of the table a lot,” he said.
However, he doesn’t feel he brings a bias to the council in favor of developers. “I come to these [meetings] trying to be as neutral as possible,” Rappaport said. “I don’t come in with a plan to be pro-this or anti-that.”
It just so happens he often comes down on the side with the developers. In the latest example last Tuesday, Rappaport was the only council member willing to refund part of a building fee to the Willits Town Center developer to help clean up construction debris the developer left behind when the project stalled.
Joseph Freed and Associates (JFA) will owe an estimated $146,000 to the town government in building fees for the proposed Whole Foods Market building. As part of the approvals for the project, the town is requiring that other areas of the stalled development get cleaned up. Construction materials are stacked around the site; there are dirt piles in various places; and some vacant lots are overgrown with weeds.
JFA representatives proposed Tuesday night that the town refund $73,000 of the building fees to help pay for the reclamation work. They contended that the list of responsibilities was too onerous – and expensive.
Councilwoman Anne Freedman said she was unwilling to approve the request because it would set a precedent. Every developer in a tough spot will seek a refund.
Councilman Pete McBride found the request incredulous. “Let me get this straight,” he said before reciting that the developer ran into financial trouble, left the construction site in rough shape and now wants taxpayers to help clean it up. McBride and the council majority shot down the idea. The council ultimately pared down the items JFA must address to reduce their cost.
Rappaport defended his position Friday. The town will collect more in building fees than it will provide in service, he said. It won’t cost $146,000 to review the plans, he said, so he felt is was fair to apply half of those funds to problems that residents of the area are encountering.
At least one Willits resident wrote a letter to the town government complaining that dust from the construction site was creating an air quality issue on windy summer days.
Rappaport said it’s a legitimate use of town funds to help clean up a problem that creates a hardship for its residents. Numerous other residents have complained to the town about the abandoned project looking unsightly.
“It’s a mess out there, we know that,” Rappaport said.
The use of the building fee refund to help improve the situation at Willits Town Center is no different than a previous board’s expenditure to install traffic calming features on East Valley Road, he said. Traffic generated by Willits was traveling too fast through a residential neighborhood. Instead of debating who was responsible, the town acknowledged the problem and paid to fix it.
Rappaport said he was similar focused on fixing the problem with the construction debris.
“I didn’t think it was letting the developer off the hook,” he said.
Rappaport backed the Willits Town Center developers on at least two other requests. He supported a proposal to let the developer build a sign along Highway 82 that significantly exceeds the town building code. The sign was proposed as a way to promote Willits Town Center businesses, some of which are struggling because of a lack of traffic. Whole Foods was envisioned as the anchor tenant to pull people into the development. The store would be open by now if not for the recession. As it stands, the natural grocer has a lease for a smaller store than originally envisioned, but it’s unknown if JFA or any other developer will provide space any time soon.
Rappaport expressed his support for the larger sign at a meeting last month. He noted that it’s difficult to read the listing of movies at the nearby Movieland marquee while driving by on Highway 82. Signs have to be large to be read from vehicles speeding by, he said.
The council majority nixed the sign originally proposed by the developer. A scaled down version was approved at Tuesday’s meeting.
Rappaport said Friday he still supports the bigger sign. Owners in Willits have invested a great deal of money into their businesses. They are facing additional hardships through no fault of their own.
“I’m trying to figure out what to do to help the local economy,” Rappaport said. “That is the biggest difference between me and the other board members.”
In another issue, Rappaport didn’t want to indemnify owners of employee housing from paying for maintenance costs of their buildings. That would require owners of free market residential units and of commercial spaces to subsidize affordable housing for maintenance projects, he objected.
Town Attorney Tom Smith countered that the council had already settled the issue in the housing guidelines approved before Rappaport joined the board. What Rappaport was proposing would overturn the guidelines, he said. The board majority took a different stand than Rappaport, Smith noted. To alter the conditions for Willits would open the door for every other developer to request the same alteration.
Rappaport went to bat for the developer on the only other major project besides Willits to be reviewed in the last four months. In June, he strongly protested when council members wanted to review the design of the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s proposed River Center.
Rappaport and McBride traded barbs June 14 over the council’s proper role in reviewing the design of a project. Rappaport said he trusted the conservancy and its architect, Harry Teague. “To say that a building is too big or too little, or weighs too much or doesn’t weigh enough, or is blue or yellow or green – I don’t want to be that guy,” Rappaport said.
McBride countered by saying, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking questions. If you want to rubber-stamp things, be my guest.”
The board majority asked for some architectural tweaks before the project returns for the next round of review.
Rappaport said Friday he was advocating for fairness by objecting to review of the design of the river center. The town code places limitations on new building – with setbacks from lot lines, height restrictions and the like. When a proposal adheres to the guidelines, it shouldn’t be subjected to design review, he said.
“The place where I start is – there’s a fairness thing that I try to understand and be an advocate for,” Rappaport said.
“If I’m guilty of anything,” he added, “it’s of being too trusting.”
Rappaport served two times previously on the Town Council and had a reputation for often siding with developers. He was off the board for four years before running again this year.
Councilwoman Freedman is often on different sides of issues from Rappaport. She said the entire board “bent over backwards” to get the Whole Foods building approved quickly to try to improve the chances that the project will be completed. But Rappaport went beyond the accommodations the majority of the board was willing to take, she said.
“I was dismayed at some of the positions – particularly the building fees,” Freedman said. The town doesn’t collect much in property taxes, and sales tax revenues have been drastically lower during the recession. Therefore, the town needs to collect all the building fees it is entitled to, she said. “Certainly we’re not in a position to reject some of those fees.”
Overall, Freedman said Rappaport seems aligned with developers on a low of issues, possibly because he is an architect.
“He does seem to be more sympathetic,” she said.
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