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Boulder County commissioners delay conservation easement ruling

BOULDER — With its three members coming to three different conclusions after a five-hour hearing Thursday, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners decided to delay a decision on whether to vacate a 41-year-old conservation easement as part of a developer’s plan to get the 40-acre parcel annexed into the city of Longmont and win approval for a subdivision that could include around 426 housing units.

With Commissioner Marta Loachamin abstaining, members Claire Levy and Ashley Stolzmann voted to table the issue until they could get more answers, including what the pending update of the county’s intergovernmental agreement with Longmont will decide regarding which areas are slated for development and which are designed to remain open space.

Bestall Collaborative founder Jack Bestall, whose Lefthand Ranch LLC owns the parcel known as Kanemoto Estates, east of Airport Road and about a third of a mile north of Colorado Highway 119, envisions a diverse, energy-efficient residential community being called Somerset Village with single-family homes, duplexes, fourplexes, cottages, townhomes and flats — with “attainable” and “affordable” price points — as well as a bodega, ride-share plaza, early-childhood center and community center.

In exchange for terminating the conservation easement, Bestall committed to pay $2.3 million into a county Parks and Open Space Department fund so that open space could be purchased elsewhere to make up for that being lost to development.

The Kanemoto family sold the parcels to Lefthand Ranch LLC for $1.22 million on Dec. 30, 2020.

Approved in 1982, the Kanemoto Estates subdivision consists of three parcels: tracts of 3.9 and 5.6 acres, each with an existing house, and a 28.76-acre outlot. The land-use code required the granting of a conservation easement, which usually designates an area to be open space in perpetuity, but the easement included language to allow the easement to be terminated if the county decided later that development would be appropriate.

Levy acknowledged that the conservation easement “does have language that says it can be terminated. Things can change,” she said, “and this conservation easement anticipated that.”

Still, she expressed concern about the precedent that vacating the easement would set, as well as whether the county would be able to buy enough open space for the amount the developer was offering.

Somerset Village would be subject to a provision in the Longmont Municipal Code that requires an “inclusionary housing obligation” of 12% affordable residential units.

“I’ve been very vocal about the fact that our ownership and development team want to do 100% attainable and affordable,” Bestall told the panel, defining “attainable” as designed for households earning 80% to 120% of area median income and “affordable” as priced for those earning less than 80% of AMI. He has been working with groups such as Prosper Longmont and Habitat for Humanity, and said he expected Habitat to be one of the development’s homebuilders.

However, Bestall was reluctant to make firm promises about what the development would include and how much of the housing would be “attainable” or “affordable” because, if Longmont approves the annexation, Somerset Village will still have to go through that city’s planners and City Council before getting the final green light.

“We don’t even know if Longmont will annex this,” he said.

Given all the city processes that lie ahead, followed by time to plat the subdivision and deal with water fees and the cost of building materials,” Bestall said, “we’re not sure where it’s going to end up. We’re too far away from the finish line.”

That worried commissioners as well.

“I think we need time with our land-use staff and attorneys to get this right,” Levy said. “We need to make this termination conditional so that we don’t lift a conservation easement and end up with something that‘s not attainable or affordable.

“I hope there’s a child care center onsite, but I don’t expect there to be because it’s so difficult financially to make one work,” Levy said. She cited developers’ promises of a day-care center and grocery in the Dakota Ridge project in Boulder, adding that “all that went away because it wasn’t financially viable.”

Loachamin originally moved to approve vacating the easement, with some conditions that guaranteed what the development would include. Citing a survey that ranked affordable housing as residents’ top concern, she noted that Longmont, a city with a population of around 100,000, has just 163 homes on the market and that 44 of them are priced above $1 million. Boulder has 239 on the market, but 139 of them are priced at more than $2 million, she said, and of the 50 units for sale in Lafayette, only one is priced at less than $500,000.

But her motion failed to gain traction, with Levy wanting to delay a decision and Stolzmann threatening to vote against vacating the easement outright if the panel didn’t agree to wait until negotiations with Longmont about the intergovernmental agreement were complete. Citing the comments from members of the public who told commissioners that they were promised — both by real estate agents and by various county agencies — that the tract near their homes was designated open space in perpetuity, Stolzmann said “This property’s green on this map. I can see why they thought it was protected.”

She said commissioners should also add conditions about the home prices because “if it’s not written in the agreement, it doesn’t get done.”

Despite hearing impassioned pleas from more than a dozen area residents, the Boulder County Planning Commission had voted unanimously in March to vacate the easement. Those opponents showed up again Thursday, with 10 of the 11 who showed up in person and five of the 10 who participated virtually speaking against the development.

Some cited the hazards of increased traffic on Airport Road and the Diagonal Highway, nearby schools already at capacity and the potential threat to other open-space around the county if the easement were vacated.

“You pay a lot of money to back up onto open space,” said homeowner Gary Hodges. “To have that yanked out from you is disconcerting.”

But Annmarie Jensen supported the developer’s plan. “Denser is a good thing” because it “uses less land to provide housing and emits fewer greenhouse gases because “more housing means less driving.”

Marcia Martin, a member of the Longmont City Council for five years and who would represent the Somerset Village development if it were annexed, hailed Bestall because “he has always been very much tuned in to the evolving process and needs in Longmont.” And Eric Wallace, one of the founders of Prosper Longmont, cited the need for affordable housing and asked, “If not here, where, and if not now, when?”

“It’s not about whether we are going to have more concrete and more traffic,” said mortgage loan officer Laura Zavala. “We already have that. We need to provide more housing for the people who are working and serving in our community.”

Jennifer Hewett-Apperson, the city of Longmont’s principal planner, told the panel that “from the get-go, this property is on the southern end of our growth boundary. It was not planned for perpetual conservation.”

“The emotional part of this,” Stolzmann said, “is that we are pitting open space advocates against housing advocates. It’s a false choice.”

Bestall, who also serves as board secretary for the Longmont Economic Development Partnership, won approval in December for annexation of a 7.6-acre property west of Airport Road between the Diagonal and Pike Road as the site of a 22-home Westview Acres subdivision. At the time, he said he had reduced the number of units planned for Westview Acres in response to neighbors’ concerns.

Source: BizWest