Harvey column: Power to the people in Basalt | PostIndependent.com

Harvey column: Power to the people in Basalt

Great things are happening up in Basalt. And it’s all thanks to the people who live there.

One of those things is the recent push-back against a town plan to use $5 million in sales tax revenues to support the developer of Willits Town Center.

The other is a citizens initiative (with which I have been involved) signed by approximately 400 registered Basalt voters that calls for an election on the future of the old Pan & Fork trailer park property, located in the heart of downtown Basalt, right next the Roaring Fork River. It currently sits vacant.

In both instances, Basalt’s residents have taken action to ensure that Town Council and the administration consider the views of the larger community. And so far, at least with the Willits question, their elected officials have responded positively.

On the Willits matter, scores of residents on Jan. 12 pressed into the tiny room where Basalt Town Council meets to express their outrage over the plan that would have given millions in sales taxes to Mariner Investments, the real estate holding firm from Kansas City that owns the Willits Town Center development. Town Council had also given the nod, on first reading, to a new Public Improvement Fee at Willits, which is essentially a sales tax that goes straight to the developer. It would have made things more expensive at new businesses. A 92,000-square-foot mixed-use building was also approved.

Willits is the midvalley shopping area where Whole Foods is located. There’s a Starbucks and a new chain hotel there as well. A number of locally owned stores and restaurants fill the shopping area out nicely. A lot of us shop and eat there, and all types of people live in the surrounding neighborhoods, many whom I like and admire. That’s to say that there are a lot of reasons to like Willits, even if you lament the loss of open fields and elk herds that used to winter there.

What the citizens of Basalt didn’t like was Town Council approval of a PIF and its decision to give away $5 million in sales taxes to Mariner. Company representatives said the money was needed to speed up completion of Willits and that new building, which is needed to create enough activity to fill the place with the right types of stores, whatever that means. Town Council got the message and nixed the sales tax sharing plan and the PIF, but left the approval for a new building intact, which was mostly in alignment with the citizens objections.

Power to the people!

Now the Town Council is being asked to put the future of the Pan & Fork property to voters. The question centers on a 2.3-acre parcel along Two Rivers Road, right across from Lions Park and Town Hall. The land is owned by a nonprofit that worked with the town government to purchase trailer park and find places for its residents to relocate. The land has been vacant for about three years, and naturally there are questions about what to do with it.

One early vision called for the entire parcel to be built out with condominiums, ground-floor retail, restaurant and office space across the entire property. Another called for a community-oriented campus, with space for nonprofits or performing arts. A proposal floated last spring for 75,000-square-foot hotel-condominium complex met considerable resistance.

So a group of longtime citizens decided to take action. They hired an attorney who studied Basalt’s Home Rule Charter and helped them craft an initiative that would compel the town to purchase the property from the nonprofit. The initiative sets the terms for future uses, requiring 1.8 acres be used for park and public access. The park area may include a stage, a playground, picnic areas and other permanent improvements.

Half an acre would be available for commercial or civic development. This might include a true hotel, a brewpub, offices, a restaurant or two, retail shops. The only thing that is not allowed is private residential development, unless it reserved for people who work in the community, such as teachers, police and many others.

The citizens behind the initiative collected more than 400 signatures from registered voters in just over two weeks. People want to vote on this issue, and hopefully the Town Council will let them.

The matter is before the council now, which is grappling with some legal concerns raised by the town attorney.

As an elected official, that’s a tough place to be. On the one hand, an enormous proportion of the electorate has signed on to the idea of having a vote. (Typically, about 700-800 voters participate in municipal elections.) On the other hand, the town attorney has identified some legal questions to consider. (The citizens committee has provided answers to those questions that would allow the measure to go to voters.)

If I were sitting on Basalt Town Council, I would send it to the voters who have said quite clearly that they want to decide the issue. It is their town, after all.

Allyn Harvey writes a monthly column for the Post-Independent. He is a Carbondale Town Trustee, where the big questions of late are lighted signs and roaming cats.

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