Garfield County OKs teacher housing at Ironbridge

Under a number of conditions, Garfield County commissioners unanimously approved an Ironbridge affordable housing plan that had raised numerous complaints from county planning staff.

Blue Heron Development Co., owner of Ironbridge, is partnering with Roaring Fork School District to develop six affordable housing units, intended for teachers or other school district employees.

Commissioners in September approved the final plat for this phase of Ironbridge, a development that already boasts 24 affordable housing units.

But by March Blue Heron’s affordable housing plan, which it had to develop as a condition of approval of the final plat, was significantly different from when it was approved in September, according to county planning staff.

“As currently drafted, this is not an ‘affordable’ housing plan; it is simply a housing plan, as there are no proposed requirements for affordability,” planning staff wrote in its report. “Though teachers may have salaries that would qualify them for affordable housing under the county’s adopted requirements, this plan does not address total household income or assets and is available to all Re-1 employees.

“In addition, the six lots … that were originally designated to be constructed and sold as affordable housing will be converted to for-sale fair-market price units. As such, the district, funded by the taxpayer, is alleviating fully Blue Heron Development LLC from its remaining obligation to provide affordable housing in this final phase of Ironbridge.”

Blue Heron’s original obligation was for for-sale affordable housing units at 80 percent of average median income. Under the new proposal, the duplexes would be for rent rather than for sale.

The new proposal “does not ensure any level of affordability as there are no limitations on income or assets,” wrote the planning staff. The proposal includes no discussion of “rental prices or future price adjustment on rental costs.”

Initial sale price for the units is not set, and the proposal does not include any rental guidelines, according to county staff.

The new proposal is for three duplexes on a parcel initially intended for sanitation facility infrastructure. As of this approval the “sanitation parcel” is renamed “Parcel A.”

Planning staff also took issue with the affordable housing being designated for teachers and school district employees, whereas the county’s affordable housing goals emphasize equal opportunity for everyone in the county.

One of the commissioners’ conditions dealt with this issue. If the school district decides to sell the properties, Blue Heron’s proposal gave priority to school district employees who have lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for more than two years.

Commissioners removed this provision, opening up the eligibility to anyone who would qualify under Garfield County Housing Authority standards.

Planning staff also said the proposal didn’t address homeowners association fees, but attorney Karl Hanlon countered that the developer doesn’t have control over these fees.

The issues ultimately come down to whether the county trusts the school district not to price gouge its own employees, said Hanlon.

Kate Gazunis of Garfield County Housing Authority, with Jeff Gatlin and Bob Johnson from the school district, were present to support the affordable housing plan.

Gatlin said the school district has formed a committee to develop rental guidelines, so the guidelines are being driven by those whom they are going to serve.

“I believe this is a rare opportunity for us to make a difference for the people who make a difference in our lives,” said John Young of Blue Heron.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he wanted to largely put the responsibility of units’ affordability “on the shoulders of RE-1.”

Near the end of the public meeting the commissioners were discussing holding off on a decision to get legal advice and for the school district to do more work on affordable rental guidelines.

Planning staff and the developers continued batted around numerous staff concerns, which Young said felt like “death by 1,000 cuts.”

In frustration, Jim Light, also of Blue Heron, said “Do I just commit suicide right now? It’s like we’re ready to go and there’s a whole new process from the developer’s point of view.” The developer had contractors ready to begin work pending the commissioners’ decision.

Light was pushing for a decision because project costs would grow if work spills into more than one season.

The commissioners held an executive session to get legal advice and then returned to the public meeting to unanimously agree upon the conditioned approval.

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