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Mixing art with science
Basalt’s updated master plan process kicks into gear with first community meeting April 24
Town plan
The team at Connect One begins deliberations pertaining to the newly commenced Basalt master plan update process. Pictured clockwise from left are Christine Shine, Heather Henry, Gyles Thornely and Molly Somes. The first community-input gathering is set for April 24 at the Temporary in Willits. - photo by Jordan Curet

The year-long process to revise Basalt’s master plan is underway.

In early December 2018, the town government issued an RFP —  Request for Proposal — soliciting, as its name would indicate, proposals from firms interested in delving into the complicated task of updating a master plan that has been on the books — with several noteworthy modifications — for 12 years.

Eight firms responded. After whittling down the list to five finalists, the Basalt Town Council voted unanimously on March 4 to enter into contract negotiations with CTA Group — which has offices in Denver and numerous other Western locales — and which had partnered on the RFP with Basalt-based Connect One Design.

The contract — for about $200,000 — was officially signed, stamped, sealed and delivered two weeks ago.

Now the real work begins.

According to Wayne Freeman, principal-in-charge of CTA Group, the master plan process needs to be complete by the end of the year. Ergo: Tick tick tick.

A team consisting of Freeman, Heather Henry — Connect One’s collaborating principal and community outreach lead, Dave Dixon, Connect One’s project manager, and Gyles Thornely, Connect One’s lead landscape architect, got the ball rolling by meeting with Basalt town staff for much of March 19. The group met with the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission later that night.

Henry said the first stage of the master plan update process will consist of soliciting input from the denizens of Basalt.

But, before delving into operational specifics, it might be helpful to ask and answer a few germane questions: What exactly is a “master plan” and what effect does it have on the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens going about their daily slog? Why should Joe Blow the Ragman care one whit about something as seemingly arcane and esoteric as a master plan, which, to most people, might as well be penned in Sanskrit?

According to Susan Philp, Basalt’s planning director, there are plenty of reasons for Joe Blow to sit up, take notice and get involved.

“A master plan is a framework and guide for accomplishing community aspirations and intentions” Philp says. “It states goals and objectives and recommends courses of action for future growth and development of land, public facilities and services and environmental protection.

“Municipalities and counties are authorized under Colorado State Law to prepare comprehensive plans as a long-range guiding document for a community to achieve its vision and goals,” she continues. “The master plan provides the policy framework for regulatory tools like zoning, subdivision regulations, annexations and other policies. [It] promotes the community's vision, goals, objectives and policies; establishes a process for orderly growth and development; addresses both current and long-term needs; and provides for a balance between the natural and built environment. Elements addressed in a [master] plan may include: recreation and tourism, transportation, land use, economic development, affordable housing, environment, parks and open space, natural and cultural resources, hazards, capital improvements, water supply and conservation, efficiency in government, sustainability, energy, and urban design.”

It is, according to Philp, “the principle guiding document in the development-review process.”

She is of the opinion that, given its broad reach, Basalt residents ought to be very invested in the development of a new master plan.

“The master plan is the ‘guidebook’ on which the town council and the P&Z will weigh future decisions on land use, larger capital investments and make decisions on amendments to its municipal code,” she says. “The master plan provides guidance to developers about what type of developments the town would like to see and how the town wants to address future growth. The council and the P&Z are required by the Town Home Rule Charter and the Basalt Town Code to make a determination that land use applications are in general conformity to the Basalt Master Plan. P&Z members and town councilors also desire that the Town Master Plan be inspirational.

“The best time to weigh in on the type of development desired by the community is during the preparation of the master plan and not during a later land use hearing on a development proposal where the determination of general master plan compliance is being made,” Philp continues.

This is not some sort of whimsical, ornamental expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

According to Philp, Basalt’s Home Rule Charter requires that the town council adopt and maintain a master plan. Colorado statutes state that it is the duty of a planning and zoning commission to prepare and adopt a master plan for the physical development of the municipality.

The last time that Basalt adopted a full or comprehensive master plan was in 2007.

However, Philp says, the Basalt Master Plan has been updated through several amendments and sub-area plans, such as the Parks, Open Space and Trails Plan in 2013 and the Our Town Master Plan amendment in 2015.

The town’s webpage also includes links to two other plans that have been incorporated into the Basalt’s 2007 master plan: the River Stewardship Master Plan and the Two Rivers Greenway Plan.

“The River Stewardship Plan identifies ways to make the river safer, enhance the riparian environment and create river parks for all of Basalt to enjoy,” Philp says. “The Two Rivers Greenway Plan identifies a strategic plan for enhancing the recreational use within the corridor.”

So, basically, a master plan influences pretty much everything within a town’s borders, from parks to parking.

The master plan update process will kick off with three community meetings, the first of which will take place at the Temporary in Willits on Wednesday April 24. The CTA/Connect One team will also organize five smaller neighborhood meetings to be held later in the spring.

According to Henry, the outreach component of the operation will cover a lot of conceptual ground.

“What we’ve been charged with is to work as hard as we can to broaden the community input as wide as we can, so it’s not just the same folks that have been involved in CDC meetings, the Our Town process,” she says. “We have been charged with making the input process broader, so it encompasses the whole town — Willits, the South Side and up on the hill. We want it so, at the end of this process, we have really brought the community together around some of the big, gnarly issues that have been hanging around out there for the last 10 years, so that it represents a big swath of the community.

“We will use all sorts of different tools, including surveys,” Henry continues. “We’re putting together a new program that’s a web-based input program, so that people who may not be able to attend meetings can still can go onto the website and see other people’s input and engage with the process. We will have open houses and smaller neighborhood meetings.”

The “web-based input program” is called “Bang the Table.” According to the proposal submitted to the town by the CTA/Connect One team during the RFP process, Bang the Table is “one of the fastest-growing community engagement software platforms” that will “create an effective, inclusive, innovative community engagement process that will achieve the goals of this master plan effort and be an ongoing resource for the Town of Basalt to stay engaged with all its citizens.”

Its “key components” include:

A survey feature that can ask questions regarding the vision, direction and overall growth of Basalt.

A polling feature that will be used throughout the master plan process to test the community on simple questions to which the team wants quick answers.

A guest book in which citizens can sign in and stay up to date on the entire master plan process.

Ideas and forum features.

The proposal states in bold type that “The Bang the Table platform does not replace more traditional methods of outreach.”

Once sufficient community input is received, the process of compiling, tabulating and integrating commences for what may very well turn out to be a mound of disparate skinny into something approximating a workable plan that will be viable for at least a decade. 

This is where things get a bit tricky because that “community input” will have to eventually be filtered through bureaucratic reality. Community input can’t always win the day.

“Input comes from all different places,” Henry says. “You could have the community say ‘we’d like to build a 12-story high-rise.’ But the utility department says ‘we don’t have water, sewer, fire trucks or anything else that can service a 12-story high-rise, no matter what.’ There’s always a balance of input from all different sources. Does one trump another? No — except when the town says, for instance, ‘we can only service X,’ or ‘we can only expand to here,’ or officials have decided they don’t want to annex any more. Things like that all flesh out during that input process and not one thing necessarily rises to the top.”

“It’s like an art and a science,” Dixon says. “Art is the community input. Science is the implementation of the plan, which includes things like zoning.”

“The final product and the outcome are paramount,” Henry says. “Ultimately, a more structured process comes into play via state law and all the things that the town has to do. Our intent would be to end in a product that gives concrete implementation measures.

“We’ll analyze the public input, then we bring that to the team, taking the input into a drawing, taking the art into science,” she continues. “We will distill the input into something you can read, something staff can read.”

Eventually, it is the town council that will decide what final form the master plan will take.

There is little doubt in the minds of the CTA/Connect One team that familiarity with Basalt played a large role in the town’s decision to hire them to update the master plan.

According to the proposal CTA/Connect One presented to the town, Connect One has been involved with a plethora of local projects, including the design of Midland Park, Emma Bridge, Willits Open Space and Playground, the Basalt Vista/Habitat for Humanity housing project, various Aspen affordable housing projects, the Aspen-Basalt Campground tiny home retrofit and the Aspen Mountain Master Plan.

 Connect One has Basalt flowing through its corporate veins.

Henry, Thornely and Dixon know what they’re getting into.

When asked whether issues dominating the headlines in Basalt of late — the ongoing CDC parcel controversy and the recent TABOR/property tax issue, among them — will make the process of preparing a new master plan more challenging, Thornely responded: “We get Basalt. We’ve been here for 10 years. We started our company and have always been here in Basalt. We know the nuances of dealing with Basalt. And we love it. We know it’s difficult and no one said our profession is easy and this is why we rise to the occasion, why we got chosen.”

What many in Basalt view as fist-shaking acrimony, Thornely views through a more positive prism.

“People are impassioned about their community,” he says. “They give a crap. That’s why they’re so vocal. Yes, they’re split. There’s a huge dichotomy in this town right now, but I think we have the translation ability to work with both sides and listen. It’s all about listening, It’s like a good marriage.”

“Ultimately, we’d like to have our actionable outcomes really distill all the common ground,” Henry says. “Where we say, ‘OK, this is where Basalt is split and this is where there is common ground. How do we bring together whatever might divide us and really suss those things out?’ Then we move on to some of the things that, hey, [disputes] are still out there, the town’s still divided. It’s going to be OK to remain that way, to still have that discourse on some of these issues.

“That’s an outcome of people bring passionate about their community,” she continues. 

Freeman adds: “From our team’s perspective, at least out of the chute, if we could get the opportunity to get people interested, if not excited, about the planning process … half the battle is to get people talking about it. Whatever gets people out to have discourse and some interest in what’s happening in the community.”

“If you’re going to do challenging work, you might as well do it in one of the most beautiful places in the West,” Henry says.

“We expect it to be a wonderful challenge,” says Thornely.