Midvalley crowd battles in trenches for less density at The Fields | PostIndependent.com

Midvalley crowd battles in trenches for less density at The Fields

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Cows graze on a portion of The Fields property, across Highway 82 from the entrance to Blue Lake subdivision. A decision Thursday will influence the level of development on the property.
Aspen Times file photo

The midvalley planning commission appears ready to reconsider how much density to recommend for a controversial site despite resistance from Eagle County staff members.

Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission members Temple Glassier and Charles Spickert said at the end of a highly charged meeting June 14 that they will ask Thursday for reconsideration of the recommended density for The Fields — 19 acres across Highway 82 from the entrance to the Blue Lake subdivision, that’s being eyed for a residential project.

Roughly 100 midvalley residents attended a meeting June 14 to protest the planning commission’s direction on The Fields as part of an update of the Mid-Valley Area Community Plan. That plan is an advisory document that guides land-use decisions in western Eagle County — much of the Highway 82 corridor between El Jebel and Basalt, Emma, part of Missouri Heights and part of the Fryingpan Valley.

In a nutshell, here’s what the fight is about with The Fields: The planning commission decided to eliminate an “urban/suburban” land-use designation that allows up to seven dwelling units per acre. That’s the designation The Fields has in the 2013 master plan. The planning commission divided the “urban-suburban” designation into two new classifications — one that allows between two and four units per acre and one that allows five to seven units per acre.

At its May 17 meeting, the planning commission decided in a split decision to recommend the higher of the two levels of density for The Fields. Commission members Michael Luciano, Robert Andre and Curtis Vaughn supported four to seven units while Glassier and Spickert support the lower density.

As word of the vote got out, some midvalley residents organized to protest the direction. The June 14 meeting got off to a raucous start when Wayne Ewing, who owns 3.5 acres adjacent to The Fields, made an emotional presentation about how the higher density is out of character with the surrounding area.

“It’s insane. It’s all about greed,” he said to a loud cheer from the audience.

Summit Vista resident Greg Hammond presented a petition he said was signed by 108 residents from neighborhoods surrounding The Fields. The petition demands the lower density.

One of the biggest concerns, Hammond said, is The Fields will add too much traffic to Valley Road and compromise safety.

“Not a single person asked declined to sign the petition,” he said.

The Summit Vista Homeowners Association had their attorney, Eric Gross, attend the meeting and lobby for a lower density at The Fields.

Ken Ransford, a midvalley activist who is heading what appears to be an uphill effort to get the midvalley removed from Eagle County and annexed into Pitkin County, said midvalley residents aren’t comfortable with the rate of growth supported in the Eagle Valley.

By his calculations, Eagle County accommodated a 4.3 percent annual growth rate between 1980 and 2015, adding about 44,000 residents. Over that same time, Pitkin County has grown 1.6 percent annually and added 8,000 people.

Eagle County’s population was only 3,000 greater than Pitkin County’s in 1980, Ransford said. Now Eagle County is larger by about 39,000 people.

Residents in western Eagle County are sending a clear message to Eagle County that they want less growth in the Roaring Fork Valley corridor, Ransford said.

The only person speaking in favor of higher density on The Fields was Keith Ehlers, the project’s land-use planner. He said growth is inevitable in the Roaring Fork Valley, but it can be done right. He and the property owners have argued throughout the process that the site is appropriate for high-density development because of its location along Highway 82 and proximity to services in El Jebel. They also have said they can provide more affordable housing with a higher density.

The Fields has an application pending for as many as 110 single-family homes and duplex units. The review is on hold because of a moratorium in place during the update of the master plan.

C.J. Howard, a resident along Old Highway 82, countered Ehler’s claim that high-density developments are needed to satisfy the demand.

“We are going to add more people. That’s inevitable,” she said. “But do we have to add them 400 at a time?”

Howard and other speakers objected to the idea of packing high-density development along the Highway 82 corridor.

Glassier said she shares many of the same views expressed at the meeting. She said conditions have changed in the midvalley since 2013, when the current master plan was adopted. The area was just emerging from the recession, she said, and development hadn’t cranked up to the level it is at now. Traffic has clogged the highway and secondary roads, she said. Those changes warrant the lower density on The Fields, she said.

Glassier said it was her hope that the decision on the density of The Fields would be revisited Thursday when the planning commission votes on the final draft of the plan.

Eagle County Planning Director Damian Peduto instantly replied that the planning commission shouldn’t react to a crowd appearing at the end of the process.

“There are no arbitrary decisions,” Peduto said. “So 100 people coming up telling you they want something isn’t what legitimizes the master plan.”

During discussions about The Fields in the past two planning commission meetings, Peduto and Assistant County Attorney Beth Oliver have argued against making any drastic changes to the 2013 master plan.

In addition, Oliver downplayed the significance of the master plan at the May 17 meeting, saying it is an advisory document that doesn’t dictate future decisions on specific land-use proposals.

However, the Eagle County commissioners have said the master plan is critical to their decision-making process when considering individual projects. When the board approved the controversial Tree Farm property 2-1 last year, Commissioners Jill Ryan and Jeanne McQueeney stressed that they felt the project warranted approval due to its compliance with the Mid-Valley Area Master Plan.

The backlash to the Tree Farm decision led to the commissioners directing the planning commission to re-examine the master plan.

In a Jan. 10 statement, Eagle County government said, “The review of the plan was prompted by public sentiment expressed during recent land-use hearings, as well as other community interactions. County officials have stated their desire to ensure local interests are reflected in the plan.”

Ryan wrote in an email to The Aspen Times on Dec. 8 that it appeared the current master plan “may be inconsistent with community sentiment, especially the Highway 82 corridor section.”

“This is the best way to incorporate the will of the community into the land use regulations from the beginning,” Ryan wrote.

Peduto stressed to planning commission members at the June 14 meeting that the master plan must be based on a number of criteria, not just public input.

“It’s not as simple as taking a head count,” Peduto said.

Spickert responded that he also supported a reconsideration of the recommended density at The Fields — not solely based on the turnout of the crowd. He said he would outline at Thursday’s meeting several ways in which conditions have changed since 2013.

scondon@aspentimes.com