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Boulder County OKs terminating Kanemoto conservation easement, with conditions

BOULDER — After a debate that lasted nearly four hours on Tuesday, Boulder County commissioners voted 2-1 to terminate a 41-year-old conservation easement on the southwest edge of Longmont, clearing the way for annexation of a 40-acre tract into that city and eventual construction of up to 426 “affordable” and “attainable” residential units.

However, driven by the caution of commission chair Claire Levy, the panel added conditions designed to compel Bestall Collaborative Ltd. to keep to its commitments to provide that lower-cost housing in its proposed Somerset Village development along the east side of Airport Road about a half-mile north of the Diagonal Highway.

Although known as the Kanemoto Estates Conservation Easement, the Kanemoto family obtained the conservation easement in 1982 and then sold the parcel to Bestall’s Lefthand Ranch LLC for $1.22 million on Dec. 30, 2020.

“A conservation easement is a public asset, and I don’t think we should release it without getting something back,” Levy said. “We need a greater assurance that those attainable units will be affordable to people in that price range. I just didn’t hear enough about how that would work through the process.”

Noting that after an annexation, oversight over the development would be in the hands of the city of Longmont, not Boulder County, Levy told developer Jack Bestall that “you’re going to build these things and they’re going to be on the market. By the time that happens, we’ll be long gone.”

Somerset Village would be subject to a provision in the Longmont Municipal Code that requires an “inclusionary housing obligation” that 12% of residential units be “affordable,” defined as priced for households earning less than 80% of area median income. However, Levy said, the city has no such requirement for housing that’s “attainable” to a “middle tier” of homebuyers earning between 80% and 120% of AMI.

“I would want to hold the developer to the commitment he put in the packet he sant to us,” Levy said, “and condition the release that 88% of this be affordable” to people in that middle tier.

Attorney Sean Stewart of the Lyons Gaddis law firm, who represented the developer at the meeting, assured the panel that “whatever the conditions this commission would place would go into that termination agreement, and would essentially say the subsequent annexation agreement will contain the following. Any plat or housing plan will contain your conditions.”

The conditions the panel attached to termination of the easement put teeth behind Bestall’s commitment to “exceed Longmont’s inclusionary housing standards,” focusing on middle-tier housing to allow residents to build financial equity, with a primary focus on units for sale but also with some rental offerings. Bestall also committed that 12% of the residences, which will be built by Habitat for Humanity, would be “affordable” and deed restricted, that all units would be built onsite, and that in-lieu fee provisions would be waived.

Levy said deed restrictions on the middle-tier housing might be appropriate because, she told Bestall, “over time these properties will become unaffordable. We are being asked to make a decision to relinquish something that is a public property right, and in exchange for something that confers value on you.” A plan such as his, she said, “often does require some deed restriction to make sure it stays affordable over time.”

Bestall responded that he found that idea “concerning” because “you’re not restricting us as developers, you’re restricting the people who purchase the homes. I’m concerned about putting restrictions on buyers who qualify in that 80% to 120% AMI.”

Levy pushed back that it would be lower-income homeowners, not those in the middle tier, who “would stand the most to gain from building that equity,” and Bestall conceded that “it could be we could designate a percentage of that middle tier that could be restricted for a certain amount of time.”

Commissioner Marta Loachamin was more firm in her support for terminating the easement and said she was “leaning toward not putting additional conditions on it.”

Her understanding of the intergovernmental agreement between Boulder County and the city of Longmont, she said, is “really for the county to use its comprehensive plan but then allow local jurisdictions to make their own decisions.

Boulder County has 248 regulatory conservation easements totaling 41,000 acres,” she said, “and this is an opportunity for us to make the best use of an easement that does allow us to terminate it.”

Voting against terminating the easement was commissioner Ashley Stolzmann, who said that “any time we are putting housing against open space in our community, we’re losing as a community. It’s a lose lose to pit the two against each other.”

In an executive session earlier in the day, Stolzmann said, “we talked about selecting “30-plus units for disposition from our affordable-housing program that we can no longer afford to operate.” She said the commission on Thursday will consider asking voters through a ballot issue “to help us with funding for ongoing affordable-housing support.”

Observing that she felt it’s “very unclear what Longmont wants to do” because “different City Council members have different perspectives,” Stolzmann said terminating the easement would set a troublesome precedent because it could lead to thousands of acres of conservation easements in the county potentially being terminated. She wondered “what this does for the integrity of the program in its entirety.”

That sentiment was echoed by Levy, who said she regretted that some homebuyers in the subdivision to the north had been misled into believing the easement would be protected in perpetuity, and asked “how will they ever trust us in the future?”

As it had when it first took up the issue in July, commissioners on Tuesday heard impassioned pleas on both sides during the public-comment period.

Eleven of the 26 speakers — including Longmont City Council member Marcia Martin and David Emerson, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the St. Vrain Valley — cited the area’s soaring housing prices that forced workers in Longmont to live far outside the city and commute in, as well as the fact that Longmont no longer has an economy based on agriculture as it did in 1982 when the easement was first written.

The other 15 speakers — including residents of the Clover Creek subdivision to the north who had organized into a group called Keep Airport Road Environmental and Safe, or KARES — cited increased traffic hazards and the need for open space as the area’s population grows while also contending that placing a high-density neighborhood at the edge of a city was inappropriate because shopping and public transit would not be near. 

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. He also noted that while the current conservation easement is private land, park areas within Somerset Village would be open to the public.

After the meeting was adjourned, Bestall said he was “excited about moving to the annexation step. This is a great opportunity to respond to the middle-tier and affordable-housing crisis. We know we have some more work to do, but we appreciate the commission’s thoughtful deliberation on this issue and giving us the opportunity to move forward.”

Bestall, who also serves as board secretary for the Longmont Economic Development Partnership, said that 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.

“It’s not easy to guarantee” what developing the subdivision will cost by then, Bestall said, but, “frankly, these are the conditions we felt we could try to achieve. It’s difficult but it’s a worthy goal. We have every intent to achieve it. We’re going to put the work in.”

Source: BizWest