In a contentious 2-1 vote, the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners granted the Rural Transit Authority access to $30,000 that had been set aside in the County budget for use in the pursuit of a park and ride at the intersection of Cement Creek Road and Highway 135.
Commissioner Paula Swenson offered the lone dissenting vote in favor of holding the funds until some of the details of the transaction were ironed out. But commissioner Jim Starr prevailed in his effort to follow through with the agreement the County made with the RTA last fall. The RTA has long been looking into the possibility of building a park and ride at the intersection to serve the people of Crested Butte South and progress has been slow. Last week, the RTA board voted to suspend an environmental study that could provide a categorical exclusion from a more intensive Environmental Assessment. The categorical exclusion the RTA has been working on is about 60 percent complete. Those studies are required if the RTA wants to secure federal funding for the project. “We put the [categorical exclusion] on hold right now while we try to get a handle on the property,” RTA director Scott Truex told the commissioners at a regular meeting Tuesday, February 16. “We want to make sure that we’re proceeding appropriately and make sure we can afford to do this.” The RTA also wants to move forward with an appraisal of a three-acre section of a 91-acre piece of property owned by David and Rhonda McCay, where the proposed park and ride could be built. That property is located at the corner of Cement Creek Road and the highway. It may have to be condemned to be obtained. “We did talk about putting a hold on that [categorical exclusion] and going with the appraisal at this point, because there is some concern from staff and various members of the board about even proceeding at this point,” Swenson said. The money the County gives to the RTA can be used in any way the RTA wants, but the aim is to get matching funds from the federal government. The RTA is eyeing a federal grant that would fund approximately $395,000 of the project. That money is already earmarked for the RTA but several benchmarks must be reached before the money is released. “I’m kind of concerned with us going forward with the money we have allocated at this point. I’d rather see us hold off on allocating County funds until we’re sure that the RTA is going to go forward with this project,” Swenson continued. The Crested Butte South Property Owners’ Association also allocated funds for the project, and expressed concern last week at the idea of their money being used to continue the exploration process without the project being completed, Swenson pointed out. Fearing that the same thing could happen to them, they asked what would happen if the project got to a point where it was no longer “doable.” Truex told the commissioners that there would be several points during the process that they could pull the plug on the project if things weren’t shaping up as hoped. “Then what happens to the $30,000?” asked Channell. Although the initial response was that the RTA would just be able to keep the money, Truex made a save, saying, “Actually, I just got out of a meeting with our board and their response was that they, in good conscience, couldn’t keep that money. If we don’t complete the project then I’d imagine the Board would want to return the money to the County.” And there are a number of reasons that the plug might have to be pulled on the proposal. If things move along as planned from the point of appraisal, the commissioners wanted to know if the land should be acquired first or the proposal for the park and ride should be vetted through the County’s land use change process. There is the possibility that, with land in hand, the RTA fails to meet the requirements of the land use change process. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Truex said. Swenson was quick to say, “It’s getting more uncertain by the moment,” before again requesting that the commissioners table the discussion for six weeks. But Starr said, “I respectfully disagree. By us putting this [$30,000] in the budget, we gave direction to the RTA, which has been working on this project for a good number of months and has now retained consultants as a result of all the indications made. “This has been identified as the most important park and ride location in the whole bus system,” he continued. “We have a window of opportunity here until October of 2011 to leverage our money [for Federal grant money] so this is doable. Without those monies this is not doable and I’d hate to see us lose this opportunity.” Crested Butte attorney David Leinsdorf attended the meeting to represent the McCay’s interests. Raising some questions about the overall feasibility of the proposal, he said, “If you’re assuming that this has to go through the [Land Use Resolution] process, then it seems to me that funding for [a proposal] that includes my client’s land is pretty premature. You don’t know if it will obtain a land use change permit and if you read the policies [the proposal] doesn’t comply.” Truex explained that the RTA is in a unique situation, because they are trying to establish whether or not the RTA can get the federal grant that would make the park and ride possible. “It’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem here,” Truex said. “We just can’t go to the land use process until after we know that we can have the land, and we can’t get the land without knowing whether we’ll be able to get through the land use process.” Leinsdorf was serving as a county commissioner in 1977 when the Land Use Resolution was first passed. He said, “This proposal is likely to encourage and precipitate a raft of applications along Highway 135 to serve your park and ride if it’s successful… You might see applications for a 7-11 and without a park and ride, I don’t think you could get [a 7-11] approved. “In 1977 when the first Resolution was adopted…we took as much brain damage over that particular provision of the Land Use Resolution to prohibit highway strip development as we took over just about the whole rest of the Land Use Resolution put together,” he continued. “The reason was that people who owned highway property rightly assumed that we were trying to prevent from happening exactly what the RTA is trying to do.” Starr made the point that the County is trying to do what the municipalities have been successful in doing: construct bus stops to serve the RTA in the county. “I think it’s the County’s obligation to look into and construct bus stops in our jurisdiction, just like the municipalities have,” Starr said. “Part of that obligation is exploring the feasibility and trying to leverage our money four-to-one through the use of federal funds.” Eventually, after some tug of war between the two sides, Channell came to side with Starr in the decision and the $30,000 was released into a pot of money that the RTA will use to make the process move forward. The commissioners made it clear the money should be used for the park and ride process and hopefully be used as matching funds for the federal grant. But the process is far from over. As Leinsdorf made clear, he wasn’t attending the meeting to explain the origins of the LUR. He was there to defend his client’s property. Since the McCay’s don’t want to sell their property to the RTA, it will have to be condemned by the County and Leinsdorf made an appearance to help ensure that that doesn’t happen. He said there would be three opportunities for his clients to be heard. One would be to ask the RTA to abandon the idea of a park and ride at that location. Another would be through the planning process and if those options don’t work, Leinsdorf said he will go after the condemnation process. “There are lots of opportunities to oppose this park and ride,” he said. “There are a number of people in the Cement Creek area that think it’s a bad idea and there are a lot of open space advocates that think it’s a terrible idea. People have worked for a long time to establish that area as a view corridor and this is going to start the process of putting development on the highway. It’s pretty unique that there’s no development on the highway and we’re going to fight this in every venue available.” At the meeting, Leinsdorf also raised some serious questions about the validity of the County’s process. “If as Jim [Starr] says and the board supports this project, does that mean that the LUR process will be a sham?” he asked. He pointed out that the Board’s support for the project could compromise the whole land use change process. Starr shot back, saying, “This process would not be a sham. We have standards that we adhere to. If a project meets those standards it gets approved and if it doesn’t it doesn’t.” In a final attempt to gain support for a timeout in the process, Swenson said she thought there were a lot of concerns on the RTA board about the project and that the situation the county signed on to when allocating the funds from the budget is far different than the situation the County and the RTA are in at the moment. “One is, the land owner has major concerns and we don’t even know if we’re going to be able to acquire the land, which when we approved the budget that was not articulated as strongly as it is now being articulated,” Swenson said. But her attempts fell short of gaining the majority vote. So far, Truex said the RTA has spent about $20,000 to find out if the park and ride will be feasible or not. In the near future they will spend another $5,000 on an appraisal. Truex said he had contacted the appraiser and that the appraisal would be starting “very soon.”