"Vail Valley developers urge cooperation, flexibility for workforce housing"

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2930.

VAIL — If you want more workforce housing, it's crucial to break down some barriers.

A Thursday gathering at Donovan Pavilion, which was part of this week's U.S. Mountain Community Summit, was dubbed the "YIMBY Jamboree," and focused on topics including ways to make it easier to build workforce housing.

During one of the morning sessions, a group of developers, architects and others gathered around a table to talk about ways to get workforce housing projects done.

The discussion was led by Michael O'Connor of Triumph Development, the Vail firm that led the Chamonix Neighborhood townhome project.

O'Connor noted that Triumph and town officials worked together closely to get the project approved, built and opened. That project was in the discussion phase for several months. But once the project was submitted to the town's approval process in early 2017, things happened quickly. Construction began in April of that year, and the first owners moved into their new homes in early January 2018.

Chamonix was also self-financed by the town of Vail, to the tune of roughly $17 million — all of which was repaid through unit sales. That helped speed up construction, and saved a lot of money in financing costs, O'Connor said. Other kinds of help There aren't a lot of local governments that can write checks that size. But other kinds of town help are also important.

Joanna Hopkins' firm last year worked on a Broadway Station, a new apartment project in Eagle. Hopkins said Broadway Station received a "huge" parking variance from the town, which allowed the project to move forward.

Kelly Herzog works for a firm that recently started a 77-unit project in Gypsum. Herzog said a town waiver for water tap fees saved the firm enough money to make the difference in doing the project or not.

Red Cliff Town Manager Barb Smith told the group that a developer is building on nine lots in town. To help ease the burden, tap fees for water service aren't payable until the units are sold.

Asked about possible property tax relief, Smith told the group that Red Cliff needs that revenue, given its limited sales tax base.

But, O'Connor said, property tax relief is available. O'Connor noted that developers, with the help of local housing authorities, can request property tax waivers for projects.

During a later panel discussion, Gerry Flynn of Polar Star Properties noted that $150,000 in property tax relief can enable a developer to finance another $2 million on a project.

Communication is critical

Local Realtor and developer Michael Routh told the group what he'd most like to see is a more thorough understanding of just what's expected of developers, and what tools are available to make projects possible.

That includes various officials and departments understanding what they're asking of developers.

"They need to allow staff to collaborate with developers," Routh said.

That saves both time and money.

During an afternoon panel discussion, Steve Spessard, whose firm developed the 6 West apartments in Edwards, said those costs can be significant.

Spessard said the costs of fees and permits at 6 West added up to more than $2 million. Spessard said his firm just broke ground on a much larger project in Houston. There, those costs were about $400,000.

Reducing tax burdens and other costs is part of what O'Connor said should be close cooperation with local government.

During the approval and construction of Chamonix, O'Connor worked closely with George Ruther, the town's current housing director who was at the time head of the Vail Community Development Department.

O'Connor recalled that Ruther once told him that getting a project from drawing board to completion was a bit like hitting a home run in baseball. The hitter still has to touch all the bases, but that can be done quickly.

"It's working efficiently versus expediting something," O'Connor said.

Natalie Spencer