This dynamic is just one of many among debates and controversies that have arisen since the Mountain Village Town Council began reviewing the Draft Mountain Village Comprehensive Plan referred to it by the Comprehensive Plan Task Force in late December 2010. At that time the appointed ad-hoc committee voted 8-0 to forward it to council for the elected body’s consideration for adoption as a formal advisory document.
To some, the recent criticism is typical of the eleventh hour intervention by which local politics and planning are partially defined; to others, it is the inevitable result of what they believe has been a flawed, even purposely opaque process.
“They want to call us Johnny-come-latelies or NIMBYs; I think that’s unfortunate,” said Mountain Village homeowner Bill Whitehurst, who in recent months has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of parts of the comprehensive plan and the process by which it is being developed.
“I think they’re wrong to come in and condemn people saying, ‘They’re coming in late,’” he continued.
True, Whitehurst agreed, the planning has been going on for three years, but it wasn’t until this past summer, two years into it, that the task force actually released a draft of the plan, he countered.
“Nothing in print was out until last July,” he said.
“They’re right; there was not a complete document produced until last summer,” agreed Mayor Bob Delves. Nevertheless, there were numerous materials and meetings throughout the task force portion of the process to which all interested parties could have availed themselves. They included community surveys, press releases, website outreach, direct mailings and newsletters, public workshops and more than 20 public task force meetings.
“Any assertions that this has been less than a public process with full transparency is absurd,” Delves said.
Those vision statements, approved in June 2009, specify the goals of increased economic vitality, affordable housing and public amenities, while protecting the open space, view corridors and quality of life beloved by Mountain Village residents and visitors alike.
“Mountain Village is a vibrant, healthy town that provides a high quality of life and experiences for full-time and part-time residents and visitors,” reads the first point of a four-point umbrella statement that is buttressed by specific vision statements. “This is achieved through a sustainable year-round economy, a diversity of housing choices, world-class recreation, environmental stewardship, excellent community services, and a well-built and well-designed infrastructure.”
“I’ve kind of boiled [the vision statements] down to saying what we need to do over the next 30 to 50 years in the Mountain Village is protect the integrity of what works in Mountain Village, if it’s not broken don’t fix it, and there’s a lot of things in Mountain Village that work extremely well,” Delves said recently in an interview with Telluride TV. He described those assets as having to do with vistas, scenery, open space and wildlife, and the town’s golf, ski and trail systems.
“That all works and this plan really seeks to protect that as much as possible,” he said.
Still, some in the community are concerned that the final version of the plan will have the exact opposite effect.
“When this is done in 30 years, I don’t think that any of us would feel we held to the original premise that was created for this comprehensive plan,” Nevasca Realty owner Erik Fallenius said at a recent meeting.
Most notably the plan identifies multiple subareas where potential development and redevelopment in the town could occur if property owners choose to apply for and win first zoning changes and then development approvals. Task force and town officials identified the subareas early on to enable the town to achieve economic and social vibrancy without compromising its spaciousness and environmental quality.
But in what is perhaps the most controversial element of the plan, some of those subareas could see development on land currently zoned as active open space, a zone district in which, contrary to widespread belief, some, but not all, development is currently prohibited.
While over time the town’s guiding documents have been generally consistent about allowable uses in the zone district ranging from golf courses, equestrian facilities and tennis courts to explosives storage, gondola structures and parking lots, one clause throws some confusion into the mix.
“It is hereby acknowledged that the Active Open Space/Recreation Tract is not intended to be rezoned to allow for future real estate development,” it reads.
The clause is not found in the town’s Original Plat nor in its General Declaration, both of which date to 1984, however, the language does appear in the town’s 1995 and 1996 Land Use Ordinances. It then disappears from that document in 1998 and in subsequent versions since then, for reasons that are unclear.
As a result, many in the community believe it is illegal for active open space to be rezoned for hotels and other real estate development, and the discussion, therefore, moot.
Meanwhile, the town and its legal counsel believe otherwise.
Assuming the legality of considering active open space for rezoning, proponents of the envisioned plan see it as a way to inject the town with the short-term rental units called hotbeds, or hotel accommodations, viewed by economists as necessary to create the sustainable, year-round economy Mountain Village lacks. The need is perceived to be especially acute because parcels in and near the town center that were once zoned for accommodations have, over the last ten years, been downzoned, allowing them to be built out as condominiums and leaving the town short of its once-envisioned supply of hotel sites.
Notwithstanding what happened in the past, opponents maintain that upzoning of active open space would simply be a giveaway to the Telluride Ski and Golf Company, and would result in windfall corporate profits with little benefit to the community.
“It’s a land grab by the ski company,” said Whitehurst.
“Once it is zoned they will sell this to a developer for a lot of money.”
Telski Chief Executive Officer Dave Riley counters that if the company were looking for a windfall, it would not go about it with the hotbeds that will be required as part of any future rezoning of open space.
“Hotbeds don’t have the profit capacity that coldbeds do,” said Riley, explaining that if they did, then the town would not have its current problem with an oversupply of condominiums sitting empty in the Village Core. “That’s why all the profitable real estate development has been coldbeds.”
“There isn’t going to be this windfall,” he added.
Besides, “We’re trying to create a great resort and lead with improvements,” he continued.
“To say we’re going to take the money and run is completely contrary to what we have done and it’s kind of offensive, quite frankly, because we’ve always led with improvements and intend to do that in the future.”
“Our interest is to make sure that Mountain Village is a really great place with great shopping, dining, and recreation. Right now, the businesses in Mountain Village are not economically viable living off substandard sales per year,” he continued.
Not to mention that just because such a project could be made possible by the adoption of a new Master Plan doesn’t mean that zoning applications to allow it would be readily or quickly approved, or that anyone is going to race to try to build it.
“As we look out 30, 40, 50 years we need to be planning for prosperity, and just because town council approves a comprehensive plan that identifies three, four, five potential sites for new hotel projects doesn’t mean they will get built,” Delves said in his television interview. “And we’re not committing taxpayer dollars to do anything, all we’re doing is saying strategically that if and when the free market is ready to build some sort of a hotbed product, and we don’t know what that’s going to look like because the free market will figure that out in years to come, but that we should at least have planned for it and be prepared for it. So that’s why we’re doing it.”
But say the open space parcels are permitted to apply for an upzoning by a formally adopted new Master Plan and Telski does make money off them; then, Riley said, the company will face a huge capital improvement bill including millions of dollars worth of snowmaking piping and chairlifts that need to be replaced.
As for naysayers who suspect Telski’s plan is to secure the ability to apply for an upzoning of active open space in order to flip the resort to new owners and pocket a tidy sum in the transaction, Riley categorically denied the allegation.
“I hear that all the time,” he said. “We don’t have any intention of selling this resort, we’re in this for the long haul.”
“We believe that this is a really unique international destination that just needs a few mid-course corrections to be economically sustainable and a really great place to live and work.”
Delves, too, discounted the Telski conspiracy theory.
“It’s not like the town council is trying to enrich Telski; why would we do that?” he asked.
Delves added that the comprehensive plan is the town’s attempt to secure its future economic prosperity by identifying places in which tourist infrastructure can be sited, and as it happens, Telski owns much of the suitable land.
“If and when [upzoning of active open space] should ever happen, the town would have to get a lot in return for allowing that to happen,” Delves said. “Any financial windfall released from the land would have to by and large be reinvested in the ski area.”
Delves also said that the furor being generated because most of the active open space being contemplated for upzoning is owned by Telski is causing an important element in the plan to be overlooked. That is, a large portion of the plan attempts to create certainty over remaining active open space, “by grossly limiting uses allowed today,” he said.
As originally envisioned by the task force, the 8.5-acre Boomerang parcel would house a five-star, flagship brand hotel complex complete with more than 300 short-term accommodations and condominium units in more than 350,000 square feet of lodging, restaurant and commercial space, and 18 single-family home sites.
The task force also envisioned a smaller, four-star boutique hotel complex on the 3.2-acre Comanche parcel located across the Lower Boomerang ski run from the Boomerang parcel as adding about 150 short-term accommodations and condominium units to the area in more that 150,000 square feet of lodging, restaurant and spa space.
In its most recent meeting during which it gave direction for additional parcel testing throughout the various subareas, however, council directed architects to reduce the mass of the Boomerang and Comanche buildings and to, “Give us a better idea of how it would manifest itself not just on the land but also in terms of view corridors,” said Delves. “Our conclusion was it was a lot being recommended.”
While in a guest commentary published in The Watch last week Whitehurst described the development as “a canyon-land of mega-hotels, lodges, spas, parking garages, bridges, a paved road, restaurants and the attendant traffic going on around and above you,” Telski’s Riley disputed the characterization, calling it “rumor that is not based in fact.”
Save for the addition of one skier tunnel similar to those found at numerous locations throughout the resort, “The ski terrain will not be impacted in that area,” he said. “The fact is that where the architects have placed the developments, the ski runs will remain the same width as they are now.”
Development penciled in on another open space parcel located between the Gondola Station and Lift 4 as part of a plan to develop a large hotel complex on it and four platted parcels in the Mountain Village Core has been the subject of some scrutiny, but nowhere near the extent of its uphill neighbor.
Generally speaking, council and the community seem to agree that hotbeds belong first and foremost in the core, and there has been more support than not for an expansion of the Peaks Resort and Spa and the existing Telluride Conference Center envisioned in the plan.
In the Meadows subarea council, except for Councilmember David Schillaci, liked an idea that could one day convert Big Billie’s employee apartments located at the base of Lifts 1 and 10 to a moderately-priced hotel.
The group also agreed that Telluride Apartments, the 30-unit, privately owned, low-income apartment complex now sitting empty because of ongoing mold issues and a very likely candidate for razing, should be rebuilt and density there maximized for employee housing while at the same time maintaining some green space in the area.
A task force idea to add density to two vacant lots, number 644, which is being acquired by the town through the Mountain Village Hotel Planned Unit Development process, and is currently zoned for 44 deed restricted units, and Telski-owned lot 651, now zoned for 15 free market condominiums, met with some resistance from the community and council. Members of both felt such a move could compromise the character of the existing, single-family, free-market neighborhood to the north.
Council instead suggested that any increase in housing density develop west of the lots into what is now zoned as passive open space.
Despite some resistance to a larger parking area because of the increased traffic and air pollution it could generate, a pricey idea to replace the existing Meadows parking lot with a two-story subterranean parking lot with a green roof also remained in the plan.
A neighborhood Meadows daycare center envisioned in the draft plan got lukewarm support from council, which went on to shut the door to future, non-accommodation commercial uses in the subarea, preferring they remain in the Mountain Village Core.
At the same time, council liked the idea of converting the town shops, Telski maintenance and Prospect Plaza areas from light industrial to residential uses.
But if any one portion of the plan could be seen as having received enthusiastic support upon initial review, it is that of the Town Hall subarea plan. Envisioned as the “civic heart of the community” it is seen as suitable for a variety of uses including hotbeds, deed-restricted housing, a new medical center, professional offices, a school, and a recreation center. Only one item in the subarea plan met with more than mild skepticism – the proposal to relocate the Telluride Ski Resort Children's Ski and Snowboard School from its current location near Lift 4 to the Town Hall subarea – but it remains a possibility.
The suggestion of upzoning single-family lots for multi-family or hotbed development in order to help create more affordable housing opportunities in the Mountain Village has been another lightning rod for controversy in the draft plan.
As early as its first meeting on the plan, however, council shied away from the concept when it eliminated a proposal to split 28 single-family zoned lots in the Boston Commons subarea and, in short order, questioned the suitability of a building a surface parking lot on lot SS-811 in the Town Gateway subarea recommended by the task force on land that is also zoned for single-family use.
In a separate discussion, council also declined to put its full support behind a proposal to create incentives for the development of a boutique hotel on the area known as the 89 Lots that are currently zoned for single-family and some condominium units.
Ultimately, it preferred the idea of a transitional plan for the area that would allow for higher density development near the core and a reduction in density going up the hillside.
As for the type of higher density development, council left it open to include anything from a boutique hotel to deed restricted housing or a condo or duplex development.
“When you buy next to a single-family lot the zoning is very specific; it says a single-family home can get built on that lot,” Delves explained at the time.
Unlike those who purchased lots next to active open space where there are multiple potential uses, single-family lots provide, “a reasonable expectation that that’s what’s going to happen there,” he continued.
The traffic impacts that could be generated by the plan as well as its implications for the 1997 consent decree entered into by the US Environmental Protection Agency and The Telluride Company concerning wetlands mitigation and management arising from Clean Water Act violations have also been points of controversy.
Additionally, San Miguel County has questions about the developing plans. In fact, following an executive session last week the Board of County Commissioners directed staff to contact the attorney who negotiated the county’s 1999 settlement agreement with Mountain Village in anticipation of reengaging his services.
“We’re asking that person to take a look at town’s proposed comprehensive plan regarding their calculations of zone density and how relates to density in the stipulated settlement agreement,” said County Planning Director Mike Rozycki.
A second question has to do with the rezoning and relocation of platted open space because any open space rezoned for development in the plan must be relocated elsewhere.
“By removing and readjusting active open space, how does that relate to language that says open space must be preserved as to acreage and general location,” said Rozycki.
And while the county is not specifically seeking legal opinions on the affordable housing or regional impacts of the comprehensive plan, “The commissioners are still watching and listening and are very interested in hearing the Mountain Village council’s discussion on the issues,” he continued.
“I think we’ve had a very open dialogue with the county on this thing and they’ve been great,” said Delves.
“They’re trying to find the right point of balance for them, realizing that the agreement was a long time ago and the town has matured and become a proper and publicly run town, yet because of the settlement agreement they have some ongoing responsibilities,” he continued.
If roles were reversed, “I would be doing the exact same thing.”
Ultimately, the Mountain Village Comprehensive Plan is still a work in progress as council gives direction for additional parcel testing in the subareas intended to help fine-tune their directions.
“We’re at a point in the planning approval process where people with the strongest opinions are getting the most vocal, yet in general I think the town process remains productive and simple,” said Delves.
“We’ll continue to work our way through it and get to point of adopting a plan,” he continued, estimating that date as sometime “in the next six weeks or so.”
“We’re not going to make everybody happy; our job is to listen to everybody and find balance.”