SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Related Colorado received its long-sought vesting rights extension during Monday night’s Snowmass Village Town Council meeting.
But allegations made by councilman Chris Jacobson, that his colleagues engaged in inappropriate Base Village conversations outside of a public meeting, leaves open the question of whether the 3-2 vote could be challenged or even overturned.
“There appears to have been significant ex-parte communication,” said Jacobson, who joined councilman Jason Haber in voting against the four-year vesting extension. Fred Kucker, Markey Butler and Bill Boineau cast the yes votes.
Related’s rights to build Base Village under the approvals granted in 2004 would expire in November without the vesting extension, subjecting the developer to higher fees for affordable housing and parking.
Jacobson called out Kucker for private discussions he allegedly had with an attorney for Related Colorado, as well as a conversation with Aspen Skiing Co.’s vice president of hospitality Don Schuster.
He also alleged that Butler inserted herself into negotiations about the developer’s “liquidated damages” and that Mayor Boineau reportedly attempted to remove information from the Town Council packet before it was published.
While SkiCo is not the primary Base Village applicant, the company is in negotiations to purchase a lot from master developer Related Colorado.
A shell-shocked Kucker said following the meeting, “I am absolutely convinced that I did not violate the law or the code. I did not have any substantive ex-parte communications with the applicant.” He said Jacobson’s action was “pure politics. And it stinks.”
Schuster, who was at the meeting, admitted to speaking on the phone with Kucker. “Fred did call me. I’ll confirm that,” he said.
Councilman Jacobson said his motivation for releasing this information prior to the vote was to change what he calls “a culture problem on council in Snowmass Village [which is] probably similar to a lot of places. Self-entitled good ‘ol boys and girls [with] a disregard for procedure and process, outside deals and a lack of truth.”
He added, “This troubling pattern of willful disregard for the agreed-upon process has led me to be a bit more skeptical, a bit more cynical and to listen a bit more carefully.”
That attention to detail, he said, prompted Jacobson to read between the lines of specific things that were said during the Sept. 8 council meeting between Kucker and Related’s attorney. It appeared to Jacobson that Kucker referenced conversations he had with Related’s attorney about changes to a document related to the vesting.
“This is a matter that the council had never discussed amongst itself or with the applicant,” Jacobson said. He claimed to have watched the tape of the meeting several times to make sure he understood the details.
That led to a further conversation with town attorney John Dresser. “I later learned that the town attorney had advised both Councilman Kucker and Mayor Boineau about the ex-parte communication and that it appeared that Mr. Kucker had engaged in substantive communications concerning a matter pending before the town with an applicant.”
Butler, who appeared rattled by Jacobson’s remarks, said she did “have a conversation with Mr. Schuster the day after the council meeting” but it was because she needed further clarification about SkiCo’s Limelight project. That was substantiated by Schuster.
“I did not negotiate,” Butler said, adding that she did not believe her actions to be inappropriate.
Dresser did not comment after the meeting but new Town Manager Clint Kinney said, “On my first day of work, I was made aware of the discussions.” Kinney added that in the municipal code, “as long as the conversation is not substantive,” then it isn’t classified as ex-parte.
But there’s another category for conversations made outside of the public forum and it would take a judge to determine which process was followed or potentially violated, Kinney said.
“I have no clue” whether Monday’s vote could be challenged or overturned based upon Jacobson’s allegations. “At this point it’s approved,” said Kinney.
Related Colorado president Dwayne Romero left before the meeting was over and was unavailable for comment. But his staff did distribute a prepared press release issued to the two media members in attendance.
It read: “I’d like to thank the Snowmass community, its town staff, as well as its town council and planning commission for allowing forward progress to continue in Base Village. The extension of the interim Base Village vesting rights in exchange for a series of developer milestones is a path forward that we all need to ensure the future health of Snowmass’ tourism economy.”
Before Jacobson dropped his bombshell, which succeeded in casting a pall over the rest of the meeting, the developer looked like he was cruising to a non-controversial approval. Even former opponents of the base-area plan turned out to support the project.
Bianca Hooker, a Snowmass Village resident since incorporation, asked elected officials to approve the vesting extension. Both she and her husband, former Snowmass Village mayor Jim Hooker, voted against the project during a 2004 referendum.
“This is the best thing we can do right now,” Hooker said. Two other long-time locals, Mary Beth Blake and Gracie Oliphant, who also had reservations about the original plan, agreed that the town needed to move forward and finish Base Village.
And with the vesting extension, many, but not everyone, in the community had hoped that could happen. Richard Goodwin, who owns a single-family home and a rental unit in Base Village, has advocated that a decision be postponed because of the many uncertainties surrounding the project.
Related Colorado is expected to submit a detailed plan for the completion of Base Village by Oct. 15. Included in Monday’s vesting agreement are nearly two-dozen “milestones” that are said to provide assurance to a community that is trying to once again trust its master developer.
Jacobson said it’s some of his council colleagues will need to work on trust building.
“It seems reasonable that we should follow the process. There was the opportunity for my council colleagues to recuse themselves (before Monday’s vote) and save themselves from the circumstances they created.”
Editor’s note: Madeleine Osberger is editor of Aspen Journalism’s Government Desk. She’s currently collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on coverage of Snowmass Village. The Daily News published this story on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014.