Despite being heavily involved in a legal suit aimed at derailing the proposed Tree Farm development, Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said Tuesday she will not consider recusing herself from ongoing discussions regarding a repayment schedule for monies owed for a pedestrian underpass that was constructed in 2013 under Highway 82.
The underpass was built to connect the 43-acre parcel Tree Farm development with the Willits Town Center, located directly across Highway 82.
Cost of the underpass project was about $3 million, according to Dave Marrs, chief financial officer for Geronimo Ventures, the developer of the Tree Farm.
The 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 a bit under $900,000 for their share.
The Willits people have lived up to that agreement.
The Tree Farm people were not required to pay their share until the building approvals were issued by Eagle County, where the Tree Farm is located.
Well, those approvals are about to be issued. And the Tree Farm, while unambiguously acknowledging the debt they owe, have approached the Basalt town government in hopes that their repayment schedule can be spread out over time as the development matures in phases.
In June 2017, the Eagle Board of County Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the Tree Farm project, which calls for 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.
The Eagle BOCC’s vote came after the county’s own Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission voted against the Tree Farm.
The Basalt Town Council, likewise, voted against the Tree Farm, though that governmental entity did not and does not have any jurisdiction in the matter. Since that vote, Basalt now has two new town council members.
SAVE MID VALLEY FORMED
Almost before the ink was dry on Eagle County’s decision to approve the Tree Farm, a group called Save Mid Valley formed and filed suit, which contended, among a long list of specific objections, that the Eagle BOCC’s June 2017 vote violated Eagle County’s own development codes and that the BOCC’s decision to approve the project was “arbitrary and capricious.”
On Jan. 10, Eagle County District Court Judge Kenneth Plotz tossed that suit.
Last month, Save Mid Valley decided to appeal Plotz’s decision.
Membership of Save Mid Valley consists primarily of Basalt attorney Ken Ransford, Cathy Click, who used to co-own Café Bernard in Basalt, Mike McVoy, former Pitkin County Commissioner Joe Edwards … and Mayor Whitsitt. Additionally, Whitsitt’s husband Tim is serving as the attorney-of-record for Save Mid Valley.
Last year, Jacque Whitsitt spearheaded a Go Fund Me account designed to raise money to support Save Mid Valley’s fight against the Tree Farm.
Those associations have led Marrs to wonder aloud whether Mayor Whitsitt can remain objective through ongoing discussions regarding the Tree Farm.
At its last meeting, the Basalt Town Council discussed the Tree Farm’s request to spread out the money they owe to Basalt for the underpass.
Developer Ace Lane, who owns the Tree Farm property, had asked the town council to consider allowing Geronimo Ventures to spread the amount owed to Basalt over three payments, with half — about $430,000 — to be paid when phase one of development is approved by the Eagle County Planning Department, one-quarter to be paid when about 200,000 square feet of the project is complete and the final quarter when a total of 400,000 square feet is complete.
Marrs said Monday night that he expects approval of phase one — which would cover about 100,000 square feet of the development — in March, with construction to begin by May.
So the clock is ticking.
The Basalt planning staff presented four options to the town council in the agenda packet for the Feb. 26 meeting. Those options included 1) agreeing to the Tree Farm’s request to phase its payments on its $860,000 debt to the town, 2) not agreeing to that request, 3) supporting an alternative phasing that “is not as flexible as the applicant’s proposal” or 4) to “negotiate with the developer for land use concessions that would alleviate concerns about competition with certain commercial businesses in the town.”
In the end, the council voted 5-0 to meet with Lane and Marrs to seek a pledge that no commercial development would take place at the Tree Farm until the underpass money is paid in full.
That meeting, which included Town Manager Ryan Mahoney and Assistant Planning Director James Lindt, took place last Friday.
WORKING THROUGH DETAILS
Monday, Mahoney said of last Friday’s meeting, “Still working through details so we don’t have anything to share at this moment.”
At this point, it is salient to note that Mayor Whitsitt was not in attendance at the Feb. 26 Basalt Town Council meeting, as she was on vacation.
But the agenda packet did include a letter from Mayor Whitsitt to the Eagle County Community Development Department stating, in part, “The town does not support phasing the underpass reimbursement and requests that the full $857,505 be required to be paid prior to granting any final plat approval. (This can be adjusted depending on which reimbursement option the Council selects.)”
Marrs said the Tree Farm’s cash-flow situation has been negatively impacted of late at least partially because of legal fees associated with Save Mid Valley’s ongoing legal action.
“We do not dispute that we owe that money,” Marrs said. “And if no accommodation is reached with the town of Basalt, we are prepared to pay the full amount. But, if we are required to do so, the numbers make our math hard to do.”
As of last March, Marrs, who has been with Geronimo Ventures for 13 years, said Lane and his investors have already sunk more than $5 million into the Tree Farm project, a figure that includes engineering and consulting fees and the building of a long access road.
According to Marrs, last Friday’s meeting with Mahoney and Lindt resulted in the potential for Geronimo Ventures to pay half of the money owed to Basalt upon issuance by Eagle County of the final plat for phase one of the Tree Farm project and the other half to be paid when Eagle County issues a certificate of occupancy for the first sales-tax-generating commercial building, which would exclude office space.
Marrs said the issue will be included on the March 12 Basalt Town Council agenda but, since agendas are not released until the Friday before a meeting, this was impossible to verify before press time.
Given her very public opposition to the Tree Farm, Marrs wonders if Whitsitt ought not recuse herself from the Tree Farm-related discussion he says will take place on March 12.
“It seems like she has a conflict of interest, given that she is a member of the Save Mid Valley legal action and that she started that Go Fund Me page,” Marrs says.
Whitsitt wrote in a series of emails on Tuesday, March 5, that she has no intention of recusing herself from that discussion.
“I do not agree that I have a conflict of interest in this matter,” Whitsitt wrote. “This was a condition of approval that was decided on by the [Eagle] County Commissioners. The Tree Farm is now asking for consideration to modify that condition to allow for a delayed payment. My position was clear when we urged the County Commissioners to apply this condition over two years ago.
“My colleagues on the Council have directed staff to seek a delay in commercial development on the property in exchange for a delayed reimbursement schedule,” she continued. “I intend to listen to their thoughts regarding the direction they provided as well as the terms negotiated by staff. I will make my decision based on what I think is the best option for the town.”
Marrs is of the opinion that the opposition to the Tree Farm on the part of the Basalt Town Council in general and Whitsitt in particular is misguided.
“More than anything, they are afraid we will negatively impact the sales tax revenue generated by the Willits Town Center,” he says. “In truth, we will enhance that revenue. When the Tree Farm is completed, there will be more than 1,000 people living there and, given the existence of the pedestrian underpass, those people will be shopping at Whole Foods and eating and drinking in restaurants in Willits. Their sales tax revenue will increase as a result of the Tree Farm. I don’t understand why they can’t see that.”
The main concern expressed by members of the Basalt Town Council over the last two years seems to be centered on the possibility of a grocery store opening in the Tree Farm that would compete with both Whole Foods and City Market.
While Marrs is not willing to say that a grocery store will never open in the Tree Farm, he says there are currently no plans for that to happen.
But, as the Basalt planning staff wrote in the Feb. 26 town council agenda, it took the Willits Town Center 20 years to reach 400,000 square feet of development, and that project has yet to reach full buildout. So, who knows what the future may hold?