EDITORIAL: A House Subdivided Against Itself, Part Four

Read Part One

The 16-acre “Future Development Parcel” proposed by developer Jack Searle along the San Juan River, at the south end of Hot Springs Boulevard, faces an important challenge at next Tuesday’s Archuleta Board of County Commissioners meeting. A negative vote by just two of the three BOCC commissioners could put the proposed project in limbo, at least temporarily.

As I see it, the BOCC should be considering two essential ideas. One, does the proposal align with state and local laws, and with previous agreements entered into by the County government? And two, will the proposed subdivision benefit — or harm — the community as a whole? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

We don’t know, at this point, what Mr. Searle has planned for the 16 acres, should he win approval for the “subdivision that’s not a subdivision.” As we mentioned earlier in this article series, the Fairway Land Trust had specified this particular piece of land as a “Mixed Use” area, to include both commercial and residential property. To my knowledge, Mr. Searle’s development company, BWD Construction (“Beyond Your Wildest Dreams”), has never tackled new commercial construction.

Standing on the south side of the Apache Street Bridge and looking down the San Juan River, you have a limited view of Mr. Searle’s ‘Cobblestone Townhomes’ project… (on the right in the photograph below.)   On the left, we see the parcel that Mr. Searle apparently hopes to develop, someday — but which, at the moment, belongs to the Levine family, operating as the Fairway Land Trust.

The San Juan River south of the Apache Street Bridge, with the Cobblestone Townhomes on the right.

I’m not sure what the Cobblestone Townhomes are currently selling for, but at one point, a 2-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot unit was priced in the $345,000 price range, according to this (expired) website listing:

That means the townhome was being offered at about $215 per square foot.

Jack Searle and I got to know each other about 14 months ago, when we were both active on the Archuleta County Affordable Housing Task Force. We traveled together to Breckenridge, to interview the director of the Summit County Housing Authority and learn about a certain approach to Summit County’s housing crisis: Low-Income Housing Tax Credit projects, better known in government circles as “LIHTC” — pronounced “Lie Tech.”

A couple of weeks later, Jack and I traveled to Durango together, to meet with representatives from Housing Solutions and the La Plata County Regional Housing Alliance learn more about affordable housing solutions. We also took a brief tour of a new LIHTC project in Durango: the Lumien Apartments..

The 50-unit Lumien apartment complex was built by providing government subsidies to wealthy (and well-meaning) project investors, in exchange for keeping the rental rates below market value. The rental rates are based on income and family size, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.) Here are the income guidelines and rental rates:

And here are a couple of websites showing the market rates for 1-bedroom apartments in Durango. The first website, Trulia, lists a 1-bedroom apartment in Three Springs — a suburban community about 5 minutes southeast of downtown Durango — at $1,000 a month. (I believe this listing  — Confluence — might also be a LIHTC project, but don’t quote me on that.)

The second website, Apartments.com, lists a 1-bedroom studio apartment (Hillcrest) near the Fort Lewis College campus at $1,260 a month… and also lists a few dozen apartment buildings that have zero vacancies at the moment…

According to the SmartAsset.com website:

Typically, the rents that landlords charge fall between 0.8% and 1.1% of the home’s value. For example, for a home valued at $250,000, a landlord could charge between $2,000 and $2,750 each month.

I’m sure this website is referring to the rental rates in a big city, rather than in a rural community like Pagosa Springs. But we are now seeing rental rates in the $2,000-a-month range here in Pagosa. Perhaps even more importantly, we are seeing long-term rental units converted into vacation rentals.

Here’s one of the Cobblestone Townhomes, offered as a vacation rental on the RedAwning website. Apparently, when you begin renting out your townhome by the night, you can renamed Mr. Searle’s development as “Cobblestone River Resort.”

If this unit is achieving a 50 percent occupancy rate — a pretty low occupancy rate for local motels, for example, according to Pagosa Springs Area Tourism Board data — that would mean the owners is making around $4,500 a month.

If that’s accurate, that would be a darn good return on a $345,000 investment.

A good deal for the property owner, but what does it mean for local residents? As our community’s housing is converted to vacation rentals, that naturally puts pressure on the long-term rental market. Even the act of building additional housing can actually make the overall housing crisis worse than it is already.

As I mentioned before, the information presented to the BOCC and the general public — about the proposed “Future Development Parcel” that Jack Searle hopes to have approved on Tuesday — is short on actual details about what type of development he has planned. Something similar to the Cobblestone Townhomes, directly across the river?

Or maybe… an affordable housing complex? Probably not likely on riverfront property… but stranger things have happened in Pagosa Springs.

Following our joint visits to Breckenridge and Durango to research affordable housing, Jack Searle and I found ourselves on opposite sides of a different development issue: a proposed, taxpayer-funded $7 million bridge at South 5th Street. The bridge would have led directly to a new hotel being proposed by Mr. Searle and his business partners, Matt Mees and Bill Dawson — operating as the Springs Partners — and would have been funded completely by tax dollars.

I ended up suing the Town government over an illegal meeting with the Springs Partners. That suit (which could easily have been settled instead of going to court) cost the Town at least $35,000 in legal fees.

As far as I can tell, the BOCC has been very careful not to hold any secret meetings with Mr. Searle while considering the “Future Development Parcel” across the river from his Cobblestone Townhomes complex.

But there’s one question the BOCC might ask themselves, on Tuesday. Given the seriousness of the housing crisis in Colorado resort communities, should a developer now be required to build affordable housing within a new subdivision?

Or maybe… that’s a question for the Town Council?

Read Part Five…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.