In about two weeks, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will finalize the purchases of four land parcels it needs for bus-rapid transit (BRT), the $46 million project aimed at modernizing valley buses, stops and park-and-ride lots.
The process involves everything from eminent domain in Basalt to meetings in El Jebel packed with residents concerned about increased traffic racing through their neighborhood. Decisions about BRT are being made at levels varying from the Basalt Town Council to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
With construction of bus stations and parking lots under way at the Brush Creek intercept lot and in Carbondale, one Basalt landowner said recently he simply feels “bulldozed” by RFTA.
Progress is never easy — projects involving a new recreation center and the realignment of roads in El Jebel are being scrutinized by five jurisdictions — and BRT is no different. The transportation authority has tried to soften the impact, dubbing the nation’s first rural bus rapid transit system VelicoRFTA, but those dealing with the agency says it has little problem playing hardball to get what it wants.
Angela Kincade, RFTA’s deputy project manager, said she will disclose how much RFTA is paying for the parcels in Basalt, El Jebel and Glenwood Springs when the deals are finalized. But the figure is in the millions, according to sources close to the deals.
RFTA is buying a 1.5-acre parcel at 27th Street and South Glen Avenue in Glenwood that once housed a Honda dealership. In El Jebel, the agency is buying a 1.25-acre piece from Orchard Plaza and Movieland owner Charlie Moss.
And in Basalt, RFTA went to court using eminent domain, and a judge ruled the agency was entitled to immediate possession of two parcels for a park-and-ride lot. Judge Gail Nichols of Pitkin County District Court ruled in January that RFTA and the town of Basalt had the legal authority to take the land and that the property along Basalt Avenue serves a public purpose.
Bob Myers, who owns Myers and Co. Architectural Metals and one of the two pieces of land, said he was not happy with how the negotiation process went. Court records show his company received a disbursement of $717,014.48, but Myers said the amount only reflects what RFTA paid to get immediate title to the 0.75-acre property. The final settlement amount is higher, though he declined to be more specific until the deal is complete. He was more specific about his emotions.
“I feel pissed off and bulldozed,” he said.
He and the Cathers family, which owned a neighboring parcel RFTA seized, had been in talks with the town of Basalt to possibly build a hotel on the site, Paul Cathers said this winter. His family owns the nearby Cathers Home furniture store, which is not subject to RFTA’s plan.
Jo-Net, the Cathers entity that owns the land, received $587,025.60 for immediate possession, according to court records. But a valuation trial is scheduled for December because the family “has specifically reserved the right to seek additional compensation for the taking, which shall be the sole issue remaining for trial,” Nichols wrote.
Paul Cathers has said that he and his relatives believe the bus agency was low-balling during negotiations. RFTA’s original offer for the land was in the neighborhood of $585,000, Cathers said, a sum that is less than what the family paid for it six or seven years ago and much less than the appraisal the family obtained that put the value of the land at $1 million.
The land will be used to expand by 100 spaces the existing park-and-ride lot near Highway 82. Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s CEO, contends that the expanded park-and-ride lot is clearly needed, as the current lot often fills to capacity and leaves people parking on nearby Cody Lane.
The FTA is reviewing and must approve all of the purchase prices for the parcels because it provided a nearly $25 million grant to RFTA. The rest of the project is being funded by voter-approved sales taxes.
That development in the Eagle County section of the Roaring Fork Valley is complicated is an understatement.
Here’s what’s on tap: The Crown Mountain Park and Recreation District envisions an 81,500-square-foot recreation center with four indoor tennis courts, a 150-seat amphitheater, a 33,000-square-foot ice rink, and parks for BMX and skateboard riding. The project, likely to be implemented in phases, is anticipated to generate nearly 3,700 vehicle trips on a typical weekday, according to a January traffic analysis done by Denver-based Stolfus and Associates.
Across the street, developer Ace Lane has designs for 319 residences and 96,000 square feet of commercial space. And Whole Foods at Willits, which already has several popular restaurants and other businesses, also will draw more traffic. Adding to the mix is RFTA, which plans on building a park-and-ride lot just west of Movieland.
Aspen attorney Joe Krabacher, representing Moss, said his client is awaiting final approval from RFTA and the FTA regarding the acquisition. The rundown site, filled with toppled trees and broken concrete, once held the Mermaid’s restaurant.
“There was a potential future development of additional theater space, which won’t be possible with the park-and-ride there,” Krabacher said.
Even without an expanded movie theater, however, several “studies have been completed that indicate that transportation improvements will be necessary to accommodate background traffic growth, as well as planned area development,” says the traffic analysis.
Eagle County officials, citing the Stolfus study’s recommendation, have proposed realigning East Valley Road, a frontage street that links El Jebel to Catherine Store Road, so it wraps around Movieland. But that plan would have the road cutting through a playground used by residents of the neighboring Sopris Village located south of City Market.
The proposal concerns many neighbors in the 130-home subdivision, including Michael Meiners, who described it as a working-class neighborhood. Sidewalks in the neighborhood, which predates City Market and other elements of the Orchard Plaza shopping center, are sparse. Children ride bikes and shoot hoops in the streets.
“When the subdivision was platted back in ’74 there wasn’t anything else here,” Meiners said. “There’re no streetlights, there’re no sidewalks, no on-street parking because the streets are kind of narrow.
“One of my biggest concerns ... is additional traffic through here with the kids.”
Bob Narracci, planning manager for Eagle County, said his office has received more than 100 emails about the road-realignment proposal, and that 40 to 50 people have attended two open houses about the issue in recent months.
The relocated intersection is planned as a four-way stop. It would be located just west of the Movieland complex and on the “doorstep” of the neighborhood, said Meiners. He added that he and his neighbors worry that Sopris Village will become a shortcut for users of the park-and-ride lot and the recreation center.
“If you’re going to Willits or Basalt or [elsewhere] upvalley, you’re going to leave the rec center and you’re going to hang a right and cut through the subdivision and come out on Willits Lane,” he said. “You can avoid City Market and these right-angle turns.”
Meiners said that anytime there’s a traffic backup on the highway, “the traffic through here is ridiculous. You have to stand out there and yell at people to slow down.
“What I see is that they’re setting us up for a major impact without really much consideration,” he said.
No final decisions, however, have been made about the recreation center or the road realignment. The Eagle County commissioners may vote on the development application for the recreation center, known as Crown Mountain, on May 22 at the El Jebel Community Center. The county also will host a public meeting at the same site on May 31 about the road realignment.
“I feel for those guys,” Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavey said of Sopris Village residents, acknowledging that he and his colleagues are in a difficult spot when it comes to making a decision about the future of the area. “This is a lot of change at one time for one neighborhood.”
Without RFTA’s park-and-ride lot and the recreation center application, there would likely be no impetus to alter the El Jebel roads, Stavey said, though he added that “historically it’s just an awkward intersection.”
What was once a quiet corner of the valley is getting louder. But Stavey said, if the various plans are approved, measures can be taken to alleviate residents’ concerns, including signs, speed bumps and other traffic-calming measures.
“Many people are in an emotional place about this,” he said. “We’re not trying to force it down anyone’s throat by any means.”