Willits Town Center expansion hits a snag
BASALT ” The controversial Willits Town Center expansion plan hit an unexpected snag Tuesday when the Basalt Town Council decided it needs more studies before a final vote can be taken.
The council tabled the review for two weeks, although realistically it could be considerably longer. Board members indicated that they want an economic analysis of the developers’ claims that 120 additional residences are needed to make the project viable. Board members also want studies of how the project will affect traffic, water and sanitation service, and Basalt’s schools.
The direction was a surprise because the board voted 5-0 two weeks ago, with two members absent, to approve the request by developers Michael Lipkin and Joseph Freed and Associates to add 60 free-market residences and 60 affordable housing units in the village core. That would add about 150,000 square feet to the 500,000 square feet of commercial space and free-market residential square footage already approved at Willits Town Center.
The proposal was back before the council for a required public hearing and second reading Tuesday night.
Councilmen Mark Kittle, Chris Seldin and Gary Tennenbaum pressed for the studies.
Kittle said he ran for election in 2004 to bring some “common sense” to the board. In this case, he said, the best course of action seemed to be to “take a step back” and review the potential impacts of the expansion on essential community services. Kittle said it seemed like the Roaring Fork Valley’s robust economy was driving the expansion.
“We’re having a banner year on apples, and we’re trying to cram too many apples in the bag right now,” he said.
Seldin and Tennenbaum concentrated on getting a third-party economic analysis of the developers’ claims that the additional residences were necessary to accommodate a Whole Foods supermarket.
Tim Belinski, the local representative for Joseph Freed and Associates, said that the grocer didn’t need the additional density. However, the developers need the revenue from those residences so they can build 900 underground parking spaces that will benefit Whole Foods and other stores in Willits, he said.
Without the “economic engine” of the free-market residences, the developers cannot make their deal with Whole Foods work, Belinski said.
“We can’t do it,” Belinski told the council. “I’m not telling you what Whole Foods can or cannot do. I can’t do it.”
Seldin countered that he couldn’t take the developers’ word that the residences were needed without a study to back the claim. “I can’t approve you without that information,” he said. “It seems like we’re at an impasse here.”
Rappaport broke that impasse by suggesting that the application be tabled to give the developers and town planning staff time to see if the information could be supplied. The board voted 6-0 to table the application for two weeks so the staff could prepare a proposal for getting the studies completed. Councilwoman Amy Capron wasn’t able to attend the meeting.
The board’s decision came after a public hearing where about 30 people spoke ” 20 either against the proposal or in support of more studies and 10 in favor of it. Roughly 50 chairs were filled in the council chambers and audience members spilled out the doors into a hallway. A public hearing didn’t start for 90 minutes after the meeting began, so some people left without speaking.
Opponents said the project was too dense and created too many impacts. Supporters said it was a well-conceived project that would benefit the valley.
Shelly Gross told the developers their project was better suited to Florida rather than the constricted Roaring Fork Valley. “I think your plan sounds really great, but not for here,” she said.
Bill Bleeker of Emma said he fought the project 13 years ago, when it was reviewed and rejected by the Eagle County commissioners. He noted that Joseph Freed and Associates, the majority partner in the project, is an out-of-town interest. “They’re in it for return on investment,” Bleeker said.
He concluded by citing a line from Hunter S. Thompson. “The greedheads have moved downvalley.”
Another longtime Emma resident, Ginny Parker, urged the board to say enough is enough. She lamented that the three-story, box-like brick buildings at Willits have taken over space where an elk herd used to winter. “Talk about big boxes ” people ask me, ‘Are they building prisons at Willits?'” Parker said.
Tommy Thompson spoke in favor. “I applaud you for taking on the anti-development establishment,” he told Lipkin.
Another supporter by the first name of Eric claimed the 120 units wouldn’t have that much of an impact on the valley. “I don’t see why there is a big push against this.”
Some of the supporters spoke in favor of adding a Whole Foods supermarket.
Opponent Greg Shugars of Basalt said 500,000 square feet of development gives the developers plenty to work with if they want to improve it. An expansion, he said, would have the same effect on the valley as a person trying to force down too much food.
“We can’t digest it and ultimately we’re just going to hurl,” Shugars said.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.