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Dirt to be turned on Tree Farm project
Legal suit won’t derail issuance of final plat approval
Tree Farm
Giant holes pockmark the grounds at the Tree Farm on May 8, where dozens of trees have been dug up and moved in advance of groundbreaking on phase one of the project's development plan. - photo by Craig Turpin

It has been a long time coming for Ace Lane. More than two decades after Lane — through his company, Geronimo Ventures — first began to seriously ponder the notion of developing his Tree Farm parcel, located in unincorporated Eagle County across Highway 82 from Willits Town Center, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite opposition from the Basalt Town Council, Eagle County’s Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission and an ad hoc group of citizens called Save Mid Valley, the initial groundwork — literally — is slated to begin May 13 on the 42.9-acre Tree Farm parcel.

According to Dave Marrs, chief financial officer for Geronimo Ventures, the Eagle County government has issued a limited grading permit for phase one of the project, with final plat approval for phase one to follow two weeks later.

“We cannot begin deep utility work on May 13,” Marrs said. “But the grading permit will allow mobilization of equipment, rough grading — clear and grub — and site preparation for phase one.”

Marrs added that all the heavy equipment necessary to complete that work is already on site, chomping at the figurative bit.

In addition, Marrs said, on May 28, the Eagle Board of County Commissioners is poised to issue a final plat for phase one of the Tree Farm, which will green light the eventual construction of 514,000 square feet of overall development consisting of 340 residences covering 380,000 square feet and nearly 135,000 square feet of commercial space. Included would be a 60,000-square-foot hotel. The proposal includes more than 20 acres of open space.

Phase one will consist of about 12 acres, or about 20 percent of the overall project. Subsequent phases — which will form the bulk of the development, will have to go through a separate final plat approval process with Eagle County government.

“Phase one will most likely be a mix of 50-percent residential and 50-percent commercial based on interest from potential buyers,” Marrs said. “Condos, banking/finance, chiropractic/medical and office are possible uses. Construction will start May 13 and end Oct. 15. Robust lot sales are underway now. Actual building in phase one starts March/April 2020. This will give us the opportunity to begin to get infrastructure in,” Lane said. “I think there will be a couple of restaurants and about 48 residences in phase one.”

“We will start final plat application for phase two in June 2019, with complete final plat for phase two approval in February 2020,” Marrs continued. “Infrastructure construction [for phase two] begins in April 2020 — complete September/October 2020. Building in phase two begins March/April 2021. Demand is so strong from buyers of all lots, we will likely only have two phases.”  

Process started in 2006

It is an understatement to say the process of getting the Tree Farm approved has been bumpy.

“In the ’90s, I went in and got some sketch-plan approvals [from Eagle County] and it wasn’t right and I decided I was going to re-do it,” Lane said in a March 2018 interview with the Aspen Daily News. “We shifted gears into what is now the Tree Farm. So, we began this process in 2006.”

Marrs added, “In 2009, we got sketch plan approval from Eagle County, then the recession hit, so we extended those approvals I think three times.”

“We submitted a preliminary plan in 2015. We went through the Roaring Fork Regional Planning Commission, who said ‘no.’ Then we revised the plan, based on comments that we heard from not only the public but the planning commission. And we went into preliminary planning with the [BOCC] in late ’16 or early ’17. We had five hearings before the county commissioners. During those five hearings, we adjusted the plan more based on comments we were getting from the board and the public and Basalt, so, when we finally got our approvals, the project was modified from where we started in ’09 to where we ended up in June of 2017.”

It was then that the Eagle BOCC voted 2-1 to approve the Tree Farm.

The Basalt Town Council had voted a month prior to oppose the Tree Farm, though it had no jurisdiction over the project. Four months after the Eagle BOCC’s vote, Save Mid Valley filed suit in an attempt to get the Tree Farm decision overturned. Save Mid Valley is a small group formed, according to founder Ken Ransford, “to try to get citizen input on projects like the Tree Farm and the Pan and Fork parcel.”

Membership consists primarily of Ransford himself, Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, Cathy Click, who used to co-own Café Bernard in Basalt, Mike McVoy and former Pitkin County Commissioner Joe Edwards.

The appeal was funded partially by a Go Fund Me account started by Whitsitt.

The Save Mid Valley suit contended that the Eagle BOCC’s June 2017 vote to approve the Tree Farm violated Eagle County’s own development codes and that the BOCC’s decision to approve the project was “arbitrary and capricious.”

That suit was dismissed Jan. 10, 2019, by Eagle County District Court Judge Kenneth Plotz.

Save Mid Valley opted to appeal Plotz’s decision.

That appeal has been filed and, according to Tim Whitsitt, an attorney who represents Save Mid Valley, “The matter is ongoing and we have an opening brief deadline at the end of May.”

That would be right about the time the Eagle BOCC is set to issue the final plat approval for the Tree Farm.

“There are two major issues,” Tim Whitsitt said shortly after Plotz’s decision. “First, was there any factual basis for the decision made by the Eagle County Commission? That is open to interpretation based upon the evidence entered into the record during the course of the BOCC public hearings. Second, is the question of whether they exceeded their jurisdiction. Essentially, that means, did they violate the terms of their own organic zoning regulations?”

“Basically, Rule 106 gives citizens the right to ask a judge to overturn a decision by a governmental or quasi-government entity when that board has not followed the law or has abused its discretion,” Ransford said. “We feel that the Eagle County commissioners exceeded their jurisdiction.”

According to Eagle County Community Development Director Morgan Beryl, the fact that Save Mid Valley’s suit is still going through the appeals process will not affect the Eagle BOCC’s decision to issue a final plat decision to the Tree Farm.

“The lawsuit won’t impact the processing or vote on the final plat,” Beryl said via email last week. But, could it affect the Tree Farm if the appeal is granted after the final plat is approved (assuming it is approved)?

That’s where things could get sticky.

“It would depend on the [court] order,” Beryl said. “If the order said the entire preliminary plan approval was invalid, then a subsequent final plat would also be invalid. It would be the developer’s risk if they chose to start construction with a pending lawsuit. However, there is nothing in the lawsuit that precludes the developer from continuing with land use approvals or construction.”

Marrs says he is confident the lawsuit will not derail the Tree Farm process once the final plat for phase one is approved.

“The only way the plaintiffs could place a legal halt on our ability to proceed with construction would be by obtaining a preliminary injunction from the court to prevent construction during the pendency of the lawsuit,” he said.

Whitsitt has said several times that Save Mid Valley does not have the fiscal resources to pursue an injunction, which would require the posting of a substantial monetary bond.

As if all that was not enough, in March of this year, there was yet another brouhaha, in which Geronimo Ventures attempted to sway the Basalt town government to extend repayment of a pedestrian underpass that connects the Tree Farm site with Willits Town Center.

The underpass, constructed in 2013, cost about $3 million, according to Marrs. That cost was absorbed by the Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) and the town of Basalt, with the idea that both the Tree Farm and the developers of the Willits Town Center would each pony up $860,000 for their share. The Willits people have lived up to that agreement.

Geronimo Ventures was not required to pay its share until the first final plat approvals were issued by the Eagle BOCC. Again, that will likely be in about two weeks. 

Lane and Marrs, while acknowledging the debt they owe, approached the Basalt town government last winter in hopes that their repayment schedule could be spread out over time as the development matures in phases.

In the end, a compromise was reached.

“We pay half at final plat and half prior to issue of certificate of occupancy on first commercial space,” Marrs said.

Geronimo’s costs to date: $5 million

Though Lane and Marrs can’t officially start major work until they receive their final plat approval on May 28, they are both quick to stress that Geronimo Ventures has already sunk significant cash into the Tree Farm project.

“We have spent more than $2.5 million, and that’s just the soft costs,” Marrs said. “That’s just going through the process. The engineering and the consulting fees. We have a lot more money that’s already into the project, like the access road to the property, which is another $2 million. To date, we’re up to $5 million.”

“It should have been a lot less,” Lane added, referring to the ongoing opposition to the project and the legal fees associated with that opposition.

tree farm
Giant holes pockmark the grounds at the Tree Farm on May 8, where dozens of trees have been dug up and moved in advance of groundbreaking on phase one of the project's development plan. Courtesy image
“Just a little background,” Marrs said last year. “In 2007, Basalt added Ace Lane’s property to what’s called the urban growth boundaries. They included Ace Lane’s property in the master plan, inside the town’s [urban growth] boundaries. The uses that are allowed inside these boundaries exceed what we’ve got approved. Under the master plan, through the town, we could build 413 residences. We only asked to build up to 340.

“Why the town is fighting Ace and his team so hard on a plan they included inside the town’s [urban growth] boundaries, I can’t answer that,” Marrs continued. “It makes no sense. From a practical viewpoint, if you look at what the town’s plan is, look at the Mid-Valley-area community plan, all the goals and the densities where they suggested they should go in terms of location, to take advantage of public transportation, closer to the highway, preserve open space — the Tree Farm meets or exceeds all of those goals. But yet Basalt has been the one that’s been fighting it from the very beginning. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Lane and Marrs think the answer is simple.

“It’s tax dollars,” Marrs said. “If you look at the growth of the town’s tax receipts, year over year, they’ve gone up because of Willits. It’s the same reason why Basalt leapfrogged from downtown Basalt all the way to City Market. City Market left Basalt. So, Basalt annexed City Market. They chased the money downvalley. They support Willits because Willits is basically their life blood. Without Willits, Basalt doesn’t have money to do hardly anything.”

There has also been concern expressed on the part of members of the Basalt town government that the Tree Farm will eventually house a grocery store — perhaps along the lines of a Trader Joe’s — which would compete with City Market and Whole Foods, which together provide a high percentage of Basalt’s sales tax revenue.

“We don’t envision any large retail whatsoever,” Marrs said. “We agreed to not have any one single retail user greater than 30,000 square feet.”

“That was a concession to help Basalt feel comfortable that another grocery store was not going to come in,” Lane added.

But, neither Lane nor Marrs completely rule out the possibility of a grocery store eventually finding a home in the Tree Farm once the development matures.

A project to rival Willits 

Upon completion — which could easily take a decade or more — the Tree Farm will rival Willits Town Center in size.

“We’ve got approval for up to 340 residential units,” Marrs said. “They’re all stacked condos and apartments. The average square footage is 1,117 square feet. The idea there is to keep the price point attainable. The condos will sell for between $350,000 and $550,000. We will have 50 deed-restricted units, meaning they’re price capped — the rents or the sale price is fixed by the county. We will have 40 apartment rentals and 10 for sale.

“Retail will be consumer convenience,” he continued. “The residents who live here may want a coffee shop. There’ll be a small convenience retail. We’re thinking more along the lines of a hotel, which will more than likely have a restaurant and other conveniences in it. Then maybe a few smaller restaurants at the end of the ski lake, so you can have outdoor seating on the water. Above those restaurants, you will have condominiums and apartments. Any other commercial that we will have will be service based. Meaning executive suites, physical therapy, spa treatment kind of stuff.”

Assuming that the Eagle BOCC issues final plat approval on May 28, the next six months or so will be spent on grading and infrastructure work.

“The plan has us putting pavement in early October,” Marrs said. “The only nails between now and October will be soil nails. Gould Construction will do all of the horizontal construction.”

Though not counting their chickens before they hatch, Lane and Marrs are unabashedly relieved that the final plat approval for phase one of their long-awaited project is on the immediate chronological horizon.    

“We are anxious to show off what I have been trying to explain all these years — cultivating community and a sense of place that just feels good, with trees, water, sustainable buildings and walkability,” Lane said. “A new chapter begins.”

“We’re just happy to provide a place for the missing middle as defined in the recent Regional Housing Needs Analysis and get the affordable housing built,” Marrs concluded.