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Is the mid valley development plan obsolete?

Sep 21, 2015

A portion of the mid valley map shown in the Mid Valley Area Community Plan 2013. "MU" stands for mixed use.
Credit Elise Thatcher

There are several proposals for development in the mid Roaring Fork Valley, and a little known plan is a key factor as officials decide whether to approve them.

Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher takes a look at the Mid Valley Area Community Plan.

Cliff Simonton is a long range planner with Eagle County, and he’s very aware that talking about a plan can sound super boring. “It’s complicated, and... when we’re doing it, maybe there’s nothing going on that’s all that important to people,” says Simonton. He oversaw the latest update to the Mid Valley Area Community Plan, which finished in 2013. “And so the fact that we’re updating a master plan doesn’t hit someone as, oh, gee, I need to go sit in on that.”

But the reality is, state law requires having a detailed vision in writing, and it’s used as a key guideline for new development. “When we flew at a high level over the mid valley,” remembers Simonton, “ it was very clear to us that there were some very beautiful areas that, even as development came at us over the next 20 years, they needed to be preserved.”

Notably the Emma area and the Frying Pan Valley, especially after feedback from residents. The current Mid Valley Area Community Plan is based on one started in 1991, and the newer version creates guidelines for protecting those areas. The document took about five years to hammer out, requiring collaboration among area officials, residents, landowners, and others. About sixty people helped craft the vision, which applies to the Eagle County section of the Roaring Fork Valley. Many who are currently outspoken about proposed development say Eagle County’s culture is different than the priorities in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Community plan effort, in theory,  addresses those concerns.

Cliff Simonton says collaborators decided as of 2013 that the land along Highway 82 in the mid valley, notably in the El Jebel area, is the best place to put anticipated development, “because that’s where the capacity was to handle the traffic. That is in essence where the urbanization needed to occur, if we were going to keep the pressure off these hinterlands.”

Planner Jon Fredericks says the current Tree Farm proposal “the product of the community vision that was developed during that master plan process.” Fredericks and landowner Ace Lane are asking Eagle County to approve up to 400 residential units on the Tree Farm property, across the highway from Willits Town Center. It could also include more than a hundred thousand square feet in commercial use. Fredericks says the proposal “fits exactly with what that master plan is describing.”

We’ll get to disagreements with that assertion in a moment. First, Eagle County’s planning department agrees with the Tree Farm representative. County planner Scot Hunn is overseeing that application. “We do balance a lot of things,” he explains, “but in large part, the mid valley area master plan, [and] the future land use map, they paint a bit of a target on places like Ace Lane’s property, and they talk about those properties specifically.”

A map of the area shows the land in question as designated for, “a higher density mix of residential, retail, commercial, service and light industrial uses exist or would be appropriate.” Hunn says the development proposal addresses other County goals, for energy efficiency, reducing sprawl, and more.

The vast majority of the opponents of the Tree Farm interviewed for this story say they are not aware of the Mid Valley Area Community Plan nor the collaboration that created it. Others believe a proposal like the Tree Farm doesn’t meet the full vision in the plan, by not having enough affordable housing nor being annexed into the town of Basalt.

The question now is whether vocal opposition to the Tree Farm proposal, and other development in the mid valley, reflects a majority. That could suggest that residents’ values have changed, meaning the existing plan, the Mid Valley Area Community Plan no longer reflects the needs and desires of the mid valley community. Officials currently reviewing the Tree Farm proposal will have to determine in the coming months if that’s the case, or if there’s more support for the project than meets the eye.