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Catherine Store housing proposal a no go

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By Justin Patrick
Special to The Sopris Sun

The Garfield County Planning Commission voted unanimously Dec. 13 against a proposal to allow a significant change to its comprehensive plan, a guiding document that attempts to envision how the county should grow.

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Had it passed, the amendment would have allowed a developer’s request to build up to 400 small homes in the pasture northeast of the intersection of Catherine Store Road and County Road 100 to be considered by the Commission. With the denial, the county will keep its highest density land use designation as “rural high density,” which would allow only 124 homes in the pasture.

Criticism

Opposition to the proposed amendment came from citizens, adjacent government entities, and perhaps most passionately from the Lions Ridge Homeowners Association, which represents homeowners directly adjacent to the pasture. Critics appealed to the Commission with a range of arguments. Some cited concerns about the ability of existing infrastructure to absorb an additional 1,200 or so residents in such a small place, and worried about more accidents in the already troublesome intersection. The viability of public services like fire, police, and schools for the new residents was called into question.

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Others discussed the sensitivity and delicacy of sewer and water infrastructure currently in place, and suggested that re-engineering it to service 400 new homes was not feasible. Some commenters pointed out that affordable workforce housing projects were successfully under way in nearby municipalities, including Aspen and Basalt, and suggested that the applicant had not proven a need for pursuing workforce housing in unincorporated Garfield County.

Still others decried jeopardizing the unspoken contract between existing homeowners and the county. They contended that to allow the rezoning of “rural” land to a new “residential village” category (essentially a swing from the sparsest residential designation to the most crowded) was disingenuous, harmful to wildlife, and against the spirit of the comprehensive plan. Branches of town government in both Carbondale and Pitkin County likewise urged the rejection of the amendment.

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“You’re talking about creating what is in effect a new municipality outside of the current municipalities in the county… That is in complete opposition to your comprehensive plan,” said Tom Smith, a Carbondale attorney representing Lions Ridge. “Has the applicant demonstrated that workforce housing cannot be provided within the urban growth areas as presently envisioned by your comprehensive plan?… High density development should occur in urban areas. Workforce housing should be placed where urban services and jobs, etcetera, are available to them. Placing a project in proximity to a village center lying between municipalities makes no sense…” he said.

Dozens of locals submitted comments to the Commission by email, and many were also present during Wednesday’s meeting. Though some acknowledged the pressing need for affordable workforce housing in the valley and appreciated the effort to address it, the majority were against any modification to Garfield County’s comprehensive plan and urged a solution through existing channels. “

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The intersection of Highway 82 and County Road 100 has been quite dangerous and the scene of many accidents for many years. We had two in one day this past summer. The volume of traffic generated by a high density area is incomprehensible,” wrote Anne Pratt. Some commenters pointed out that “village centers,” a key component that allowed for the Catherine Store proposal, had been identified by the county as points of possible limited build out, but that they were not intended to accommodate large residential developments. “To call Catherine’s Store a Village Center is erroneous, it’s a Gas Station and Liquor Store,” wrote Peter LaMorte.

Commissioner Chair Bob Fullerton echoed that sentiment before voting down the amendment. He was one of three commissioners currently serving that was on the commission when the county developed the comprehensive plan. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think a village center would have the potential to be this,” he said of the proposed change that would have added a “residential village” high-density land use designation within three-quarters of a mile of village centers. Only four village centers are currently identified in Garfield County.

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What now?

Applicant Ken Arnold of Gatorcap, Inc. endured the criticism with good humor. He said that he understood where opponents were coming from. “I fully understand the ‘not in my backyard’ argument. If it were my property I would be saying ‘no’ as well. But I think you have to look at the bigger picture here and the economic effect to the county in the long-term.”

Arnold later expressed his wish that he had been provided a more collaborative forum to discuss the specifics of the Catherine Store proposal, which the Commission tried to avoid to conform with procedural requirements.

“I was surprised that I was not able to discuss the value of the project and the benefits to the community,” he wrote in an email to The Sopris Sun. “I do think the public would have been better served by discussing the actual project instead of the hypotheticals of how this change, which was worded to be limited to only this one site, may affect the entire Garfield County in the future.  I think many of the concerns brought up by the public were unwarranted, and if there was a chance to discuss, we could have at least focused on the real issues.”

Whatever the long-term solution to the affordable housing crisis may be, it will not take the form of a land use change under Garfield’s comprehensive plan. It is unclear if the developer will continue to pursue a project on the 41-acre parcel near Catherine Store.

“Even though this is the best location in Garfield County for affordable workforce housing (closest point to work centers up valley, adjacent to a bus stop, and within a water/sewer district), the commission decided they did not want density that is higher than the maximum three dwelling units per acre currently allowed in the comprehensive plan,” wrote Arnold. “Our challenge is to see if we can design a workforce housing project that fits within the comprehensive plan and the community can support, while still being financially viable.”

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