Willits homeowners turn out against density
BASALT A group of homeowners on Tuesday asked Basalt’s planning and zoning commissioners to deny a request by Willits developer Michael Lipkin to add 85,000 square feet of residential development to the project.Citing concerns about growing traffic volumes, speeding cars and the danger to children and other pedestrians in the neighborhood, the homeowners suggested that the Willits project, as well as other developments springing up around them, already contain enough homes either built or in the planning stages, and more would be too much.”We are already experiencing dangerous traffic patterns,” said resident Julie Pickrell. Her concerns were bolstered by testimony from her neighbors that commuting motorists heading to Aspen often use the Willits internal streets to get around eastbound morning congestion on Highway 82, and that speeds have been clocked as high as 40 mph on the neighborhood streets.One young boy testified to seeing a car wreck in which one driver was “driving so fast he ran over a sign in the middle of the road.”The hearing before the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission was the latest step in Basalt’s continuing review of Lipkin’s proposal to add more residential development to his project, which he has said is needed to guarantee the project’s financial feasibility.There were decisions at the hearing, although commission members indicated that they felt some sympathy for the homeowners’ pleas.The board members questioned Lipkin and his team of consultants closely on everything from a proposal to sell parking spaces to those living in affordable housing units, to the mix of RO (resident occupied, generally the most costly class of affordable housing units) versus “category” affordable housing units with tighter pricing and eligibility restrictions attached.Lipkin’s team outlined revised plans that call for construction of more affordable housing than previously planned, and reported that modifications to the project proposal have cut the request to about 77,000 square feet of additional residential development.But Lipkin also is asking to be able to convert as much as 90 percent of the affordable housing from sale to rental status. All of those new units would be built above a planned Whole Foods specialty foods grocery store slated to anchor the Willits commercial complex.The conversions, according to Lipkin’s attorney, Jody Edwards, are necessary in order to control the use of the units and ensure they would be occupied by people working in Willits or other Basalt area businesses.”When you sell a unit, you lose control over it,” Edwards said. With rentals, he explained further, if someone is working at, say, Whole Foods and switches to a job for the Aspen Skiing Co., “you can simply not renew their lease. That’s the control. That’s the philosophy.”The idea, he said, is that “we don’t need more beds for Aspen employers. We need beds for Basalt employers.”This motivation for this philosophy, he continued, is in part to cut down on commuter traffic on Highway 82.”You’ve got to get people off the highway. We’ve got to get people out of their cars,” he declared. He said that blocks of the units would be sold to investors, with the intent that they rent them midvalley workers.”There is a desperate need for affordable rentals in this valley,” said commission member Bernie Grauer, but he added that he “completely empathizes” with the concerns homeowners expressed regarding traffic and safety issues related to Lipkin’s request for additional homes.Town staff members, as well as some of the commission members, said they would prefer something closer to a 50/50 split between rental and sale units, although they indicated no disagreement with Edwards’ other points.Lipkin’s team also told the P&Z that it is offering an additional 1 percent real estate transfer assessment on all property sales, on top of a 1 percent RETA already in place, to be used to deal with impacts as the project is built out.Half of the existing RETA is earmarked for construction and management of a planned performing arts center in Willits, according to town planner Susan Philp. There was no clear indication at the meeting how the remaining funds would be used, although possible uses such as creating mass transit alternatives came up.Another topic at the meeting was whether it would be better to install a traffic light at the intersection of Willits Lane and East Valley Road, the main artery leading into Willits, or to build a roundabout. Lipkin’s consultants have concluded a roundabout would be better at handling the expected traffic loads, and the P&Z members seemed largely to agree.After more than two hours of discussion, the hearing was continued until Aug. 21, when the commission will get further explanatory documents from both the Willits team and from town staff.John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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