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P&Z votes ‘no for right now’ on assisted living proposal

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By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff

There’s a balance to be struck when managing growth in a mountain town. On the one hand, nobody wants to pave paradise to put up a parking lot. On the other, locals need adequate parking options.

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But the proposed Sopris Lodge Assisted Living facility, because of the nature of its would-be residents, wouldn’t need anywhere near the 247 parking spaces typically required by the town for a project that size, contended Development Manager Terry Claassen, at a Nov. 16 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

The proposal, which did not seek a parking variance, includes 67 parking spaces — and that simply does not comply with the Unified Development Code (UDC), Carbondale Town Planner John Leybourne said.

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According to a Center for Disease Control published study that Claassen referenced during his presentation to the commission, “roughly 4 percent” of residents in an assisted living facility still drive. “Virtually every assisted living project on the Western Slope, from Glenwood Springs to Fruita, [has a] .69 ratio of parking to rooms. We are well above that [at] .78,” he said of the developer’s proposal.

Still, after a public hearing in which several local residents expressed overwhelming support for the project, the commissioners voted to follow the town’s recommendation to deny the project’s special use permit and rezoning requests — but with a clear path forward.

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“It doesn’t mean no; it means no for right now,” Commission Chair Michael Durant said. “I think that the denial seems harsh, but from a procedural perspective, it’s the right way to go,” he said, adding that the commission tries to avoid sending “half-baked” proposals to the board of trustees, which will hold the ultimate vote on the development. “What I’d like to do at this point is figure out steps we can take to keep this ball rolling and move this forward.”

Ultimately, in lieu of a continuation, the commission voted unanimously to amend the comprehensive plan and, subsequently, the UDC as it pertains specifically to assisted living. The latter amendment will be contingent on town staff research regarding other communities’ best practices for assisted-living parking requirements.  

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The denial is reflective of a shift in procedural philosophy for the town, Planning Director Janet Buck said. “If the project’s not quite right, if it needs more work, just deny it rather than continue it,” she said, noting that a past project once underwent 32 continuations. “[That] hasn’t worked well for the town, so that’s the reason for the recommendation.”

Parking is not the only proverbial roadblock to the assisted living facility’s approval. “The real elephant in the room… is Second Street,” Durant said.

SGM, an engineering consulting firm based in Glenwood Springs, conducted a study for the town in 2015 to assess improvement options and affiliated costs for Second Street, which is currently too narrow to accommodate an uptick in traffic and still be accessible to ambulances and fire trucks. Depending on the level of improvements undertaken, those costs ranged from about $185,000 to more than $294,000. The application specifies that the developers will pave a 20-ft-wide entrance that connects to Second Street but does not suggest details regarding logistics for actual street improvements – including whether improvements would be the responsibility of the developers or the town.

What is clear, however, is that despite the denial, there is overall support for the project by the town, the commission and many residents that voiced their support during the public hearing.

“I might be your first customer,” Ray Speaker, 86, said at the hearing. “I hope you people will realize that this is a great project. We need it here. Let’s make some things happen.”

“I know how much this is needed,” added Frank McSwain, who has lived in the Valley for 18 years. “There are people [here] just like myself. There aren’t a lot of options. We do not want to leave the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said emphatically.

Typically, Claassen said, about 74 percent of assisted-living residents move from their homes. That could ease housing issues for people not in the demographic served by the Sopris Lodge.

“Some people are calling it the senior tsunami,” he said of the aging Baby Boomer population. “Virtually every community is grossly undersupplied for accommodating the seniors.”

While it’s clear several planning snags need to be ironed out before the facility developers can move forward, there’s one arrangement that has already been settled. “The Nieslanik family [will] continue to use the property to conduct their semiannual cattle drives,” the application reads.

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