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TreeTops project gets 20-year vested rights

With their approval of a development agreement Tuesday, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners granted TreeTops of Pagosa a 20-year vested property right for development of a 52.3-acre parcel on Piedra Road.

The approval marked a major milestone for TreeTops developers, as they have struggled through staff and procedural snafus and a “No” vote on a re-zone request since the project’s first hearing before the county in 2006.

For Archuleta County, granting TreeTops a 20-year vesting is the first such action of its kind, however, it appears at least two other projects — River’s Gate at Pagosa Springs and Reservoir River Ranch, will also seek long-term vesting.

The TreeTops parcel is located 3.7 miles north of U.S. 160 on Piedra Road.

According to County Attorney Todd Starr, the 20-year vesting allows the developer the right to develop the property under the terms of the agreement as much as 20 years into the future, as long as the developer remains in compliance with the agreement. In addition, Starr explained, if more stringent land use regulations are adopted in the future, the more stringent regulations will prevail.

Will Neder, head of operations for the TreeTops project, described the development agreement as a “rigorous document,” and Archuleta County Director of Community Development Rick Bellis concurred.

Bellis and Starr were two of the chief architects of the document, and Starr said he believed the agreement does a good job protecting the county’s interests.

In fact, the agreement requires the developers to begin phase one on-site improvements no later than five years from the agreement’s adoption. In addition, and according to the agreement, all improvements as identified in the development plan must be complete within 10 years.

The agreement also mandates the developer provide $2.4 million “for contributions to the public improvements that need to be made to the off-site infrastructure and other community services.”

Moreover, the developers must also contribute $350,000 to the Piedra Road Corridor Planning Studies and Improvement Program; $220,000 to affordable inclusionary and workforce housing; $700,000 to the off-site sewer improvements project and $700,000 to the off-site water system improvements project.

In addition, the developer will be responsible for upgrading access to the property.

Per the agreement, the parcel’s underlying zoning will be changed from Agricultural Estate to Residential.

That said, and under the agreement, densities on the property will change from a maximum of two dwelling units per five acre lot to 5.5 units per acre, with a maximum of 176 dwelling units slated for the property. According to the plan, small scale commercial enterprises will play a vital role on the property, with the maximum “non-residential floor area” not to exceed 140,000 square feet.

Neder has long stated TreeTops will not be home to Big Box retail, and residents and visitors should expect retail or commercial endeavors on the property to occur on a much smaller scale.

“There will be no big box here, Neder said in a past interview. “The design concept is an intimate, beautiful mountain village feel with live-work, mixed-use and mixed demographic components.”

When asked whether the development agreement would still be in effect should TreeTops owners sell, Starr said any subsequent development or developer would be bound by the development agreement.

Although county staff and elected officials appeared satisfied with the document, audience views were mixed.

Project opponents cited numerous problems with the project, among them: non-compliance with the 2001 Archuleta County Community Plan, violations of hearing and approval procedures, the spectre of TreeTops’ potential financial insolvency, violations of the Colorado open records act and county staff’s failure to fully consider the project’s infrastructure and road impacts.

“This whole plan is built on quicksand or sand,” said adjacent property owner Burt Adams. “You’re (the county) going to be on the hook for millions of dollars and you aren’t going to have the money to pay for it.”

Adams was referring particularly to infrastructure and road improvements needed to accommodate the project.

“I realize it’s not in fashion to speak against development that could bring economic development to an area,” said Hatcher Lake Resident Doug Delmore. “But this is not what I heard from hundreds of people who attended those meetings. People didn’t want high density, semi-urban development patterns.” Delmore referred to the public hearing process associated with the 2001 Archuleta County Community Plan.

But Archuleta County Commissioner John Ranson disagreed. “I believe firmly we have to go in a new direction. We have to plan for the future. I think it’s time the county moves in a new direction, a positive direction, and we don’t make the same mistakes as those in the past.”

Starr said every phase of the project — there are 13 planned — would go through the county’s planning process including the complete menu of public notifications and hearings as required by the county’s land use code and Colorado statute.

james@pagosasun.com