In Telluride, Dualing Ballot Measures Seek to Address Affordable Housing Crisis

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By Alec Jacobson | 1/18/17

A pair of dueling ballot initiatives are making their way through Telluride to determine the fate of the Town’s eastern land holdings. The initiatives both propose an amendment to the Town’s Home Rule Charter, adding a section 14.9 that defines how that land can be used and both cite a housing crisis that is “threatening the social and economic fabric of our community.”

THE INITIATIVES

The Town of Telluride owns nine parcels on blocks 7, 8 , 10 and 21 near the cemetery, totaling 3.1567 acres, one of which, the easternmost plot, is currently designated as open space and houses a small playground.

The first initiative, titled “Preserve Telluride as a Community by Dedicating Land for Employee Housing” and initiated by Eleni Constantine, Julia Prejs, Brent Englund, Jeffery Haldeman and Linda Miller, notes that those lots are an “irreplaceable public asset.” The proposal directs that they, “shall be dedicated and utilized exclusively to create a variety of employee/affordable/senior residential housing in place for full time residents of Telluride R-1 School District and shall be newly zoned accordingly.” This includes all nine plots.

After vying for appointment to fill Bob Saunders’ seat on the Telluride Town Council, Constantine said she was approached by a group of locals with the idea for this initiative. She signed on, she said, because “If you want affordable housing in Telluride, land is a prerequisite,” adding that these parcels were appealing due to their location.

“If you want to integrate affordable housing into Telluride, you can’t just do it on the end,” said Constantine.

The competing initiative, titled “Preserve Telluride as a Community by Facilitating Development of Affordable Housing in the Town,” was proposed by Catherine James, John Lifton-Zoline, James Lilly, William Wallace Winship IV and Susan Jane Day. It directs council to, “use its best faith efforts and judgment to lease, develop, sell and/or otherwise utilize the Town-Owned East End Lots so as to maximize the highest and best use of those Town-Owned East End Lots for purposes of fulfilling the affordable housing and related priorities and goals of the Master Plan, in whatever manner Town Council deems best.” This proposal includes only eight lots, excluding the open space parcel on block 10.

A view of Block 7 located behind the Primrose neighborhood.

A view of Block 7 located behind the Primrose neighborhood.

THE ISSUES

The lots in question span a range of topography and existing infrastructure. Blocks 10 and 21 are relatively flat, and directly adjacent to roads and utilities, while blocks 7 and 8 are splayed on a steep hill and not directly adjacent to existing infrastructure. As a result, the latter parcels “are not necessarily developable at this point,” said Telluride Town Manager Greg Clifton. While the Town could build the infrastructure, “the priorities lie elsewhere where the costs of development are less,” Clifton added.

“There’s not a whole lot of beautiful, flat land in Telluride,” pointed out Constantine. “We could go ahead with some of the easier parcels first.”

John Lifton-Zoline is concerned that much of the proposed land in Constantine’s initiative is not suitable for affordable housing. “You will get a lot more affordable housing by selling these lots on the free market to be developed,” he said. “That would probably generate three times the affordable units.”

Clifton considers some of the lots to be “very marketable,” particularly those on blocks 10 and 21. Through the past development of the Primrose neighborhood, including construction of a road and the extension of utilities, the Town has already invested in the lots on block 10. Clifton estimates that the ultimate Town subsidy of such lots if they were converted into workforce housing units would be $800,000-$900,000 per lot.

The affordable housing matrix tool

The affordable housing matrix tool

In a matrix tool built by Town staff in 2014 to understand the utility of its land assets for affordable housing, all of the plots considered in these proposals were categorized as either “Potentially Suitable for Disposal with Proceeds for AH” or were “Removed from Consideration at this Time.” At that time, 12 locations were rated to be prioritized for affordable housing, three were earmarked for potential sale and eight were not considered at that time.

“The councils and town staff have been saying for many, many years that the long-term goal was to try to trade this into housing in some manner,” said Lifton-Zoline. “I think it’s at a point where there’s a little more flex and discussion about affordable housing and there are probably some new opportunities opening up. It’s probably a good time to convert this property into cash and have it available.”

Lifton-Zoline is also concerned that the competing proposal subverts the existing extensive system of governance, removing Town Council of its right to pass judgement on the land’s best use. “That does not seem like good democratic government,” he said. “I think if the other petition hadn’t happened it would just be a group of us going to council and trying to convince them that this was the time.”

If both petitions receive the requisite 110 signatures from registered voters who reside in the Town of Telluride, a special election must be scheduled within a narrow time frame. Neither proposal identifies the specific method for such a special election, leaving the details to up to council. It is possible that the petitioners could reconcile their differences and unite on a single petition.

Should both measures be added to the same ballot, the Home Rule Charter section 14.6 mandates that the “the amendment receiving the highest affirmative vote shall become effective.”

According to Clifton, the last five election have each cost roughly $10,000 and he expects these ballot questions to consume a similar dollar value and additional staff time.

“There are ramifications that I’m confident people are not thinking about,” Clifton said. “The intention is not to be questioned, but the approach is.”

Specifically, Clifton is concerned that the ballot initiatives propose a change to the Town’s Charter, which is the equivalent of the Town’s constitution. “Charters are a very broadly thought out document that consider the structures of government and financing,” Clifton said, “What they don’t do is get into this level of prescriptive detail.”

The rest of the Charter’s Article 14 on “Miscellaneous Legal Provisions” includes sections defining the Town’s right to eminent domain, home rule, de-annexation, legal immunity, severability of charter provisions, and clarifying the process for amendments, penalties and interpretations of the Charter. For example, a 2013 amendment to the charter was initiated by town staff to bring it in line with new state elections laws to streamline coordinated election efforts.

“It’s a big deal in my opinion,” Clifton said. “I don’t think you mess with a town’s charter.”

However the petitioners for the first ballot initiative consulted Kevin Geiger, Town Attorney, during a Town Council meeting and were instructed that using the Charter was an appropriate option.

“It’s legally correct, that was the advice the I got,” said Constantine. “We said, ‘Is this the right way to to do this?’ and he [Geiger] said ‘yes.’”

Clifton is also concerned with the precise language of the proposed amendments which will become law directly, with no chance to hone it if the community votes in favor of either measure.

Though both petitions passed through the Town before they were circulated for signatures, neither is likely to have undergone the legal review that would be standard for amendments being passed through the government. Though the risk is unclear, this may expose the Town to a misplaced word in an amendment that is otherwise to the satisfaction of the public.

“Focus on the term ‘newly zoned accordingly.’ I don’t know what that means. Not only are we stuck with it, but we’re stuck with it in perpetuity until the voters decide to change it,” said Clifton.

The lots are currently zoned residential. Changing that zoning would be a quasi-judicial process that Clifton thinks is likely to be contentious. However, the nearby Gold Run affordable development operates in the same zoning and so there is precedent for the Town to build single family homes.

Still, Clifton worries that the potential lack of clarity opens the door for opponents to file suit.

“We live in Telluride, where people think of litigation as a lunchtime sport,” he said. “That will come at the tax payers’ expense.” Ultimately, he stressed that this is an important conversation about the allocation of the Town’s resources, and that Town staff will walk whatever path the voters choose.

The full text the both proposals is included below.

Preserve Telluride as a Community by Facilitation of Affordable Housing in town

Preserve Telluride as a Community by Dedicating Land for Employee Housing

 

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About the Author

Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson has worked as a photographer around the world and was recently selected as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Before moving to Telluride, he was the Editor in Chief of ArtsRiot.com, building the site from a blog into an online culture magazine. He graduated from Amherst College in 2012, where he studied Anthropology, French and Arabic.