TELLURIDE – Voters in November will once again vote on the fate of a vacant 7.3-acre rectangle of land, commonly known as the Pearl Property, which sits between Telluride and the Valley Floor. The largely undeveloped land has long been a source of disagreement in Telluride, a town with both a strong slow growth/no growth ethic but limited land on which to build. There have been five prior votes about the Pearl, with contradictory outcomes as to whether it should be protected or developed, in whole or in part.
The Telluride Town Council voted this week to send two separate new ballot questions that may decide the use of the land to the November election.
Councilors Kristen Permakoff and Brian Werner and Town Manager Greg Clifton recused themselves from the meeting due to the proximity of their homes to the Pearl Property.
If passed, the first ballot question, drafted by the town, would divide the 7.3-acre property into two separate parcels. The first, currently used as a small parking lot, would be used for public benefit. Possible uses include a site for a new medical center, affordable housing or a recreation center. The second lot the measure would create is a large, marshy parcel that would be preserved by a conservation easement.
The other measure, written as a citizens-initiated ballot question and introduced by Telluride Grown, a local organization, asks voters to allow agricultural use on the damp, grassy 1.5 acres on the north side of the property. Telluride Grown proposes to build a food-growing operation that aims to lower the town’s carbon emissions by decreasing the demand of imported food, and to fuel the town’s appetite for locally grown food. It proposes using aquaponic-based greenhouses for growing the food.
Town officials have written the measures for a chance at voter approved in November. If that happens, the marshy land between the parking lot and the proposed agricultural center would essentially be managed as part of the Valley Floor, and protected by the conservation easement.
Mayor Stu Fraser first developed the idea to split the property to make more space for public benefits, like a medical center or an area for more affordable housing. The rest of council, however, disagreed with the idea of drafting a resolution supporting one project over another, saying that it would complicate the ballot.
Councilor Thom Carnevale said that any measure supporting one cause over another politicized the ballot question, a point echoed by Councilor Chris Myers, who said, “If it looks like we’re trying to steer the public in any specific direction, it could be the kiss of death.”
“This is muddied enough, if we could keep it as simple as possible,” said Councilor Ann Brady.
Councilor Thom Carnevale was ultimately the only dissenting vote on the second measure involving the agricultural center, citing a geological report on the Pearl Property that said the northern part of the land eyed by Telluride Grown is a receptacle for overflows and mudslides from Cornet and Butcher Creeks.
“The water flow is in that direction, and I’m concerned that if we have structures on that part of the property, the flow would be disrupted,” Carnevale said, adding, “I couldn’t in good faith support putting structures on that part of the property having known what the geologist said.”
Telluride Grown introduced its plan to grow food in Telluride at the 2013 Mountainfilm Festival, and has been since framed its agriculture plan as a way to improve community members’ health and decrease carbon emissions by curbing food imports to Telluride. Telluride Grown had asked council to place the question on a June ballot, but were unable to overcome reluctance from a majority on council to develop that portion of the Pearl.
Telluride Grown then started a citizen-initiated process to place the question on the ballot, and gathered sufficient voter signatures, which were submitted to the town clerk last week.
Steve Cieciuch, co-founder of Telluride Grown, said, “We are not against the medical center, we don’t want this to become one versus the other… I don’t want this to become a politicized issue, that was never our intent. We think the med center and Telluride Grown work hand-in-hand.” He added that both entities could collaborate on health and wellness programs and that voters should not view the two ballot questions as zero-sum.
The Telluride Hospital District has been searching for parcels in town on which to build a new facility, larger and more advanced than its current structure on West Pacific Ave. Hospital district and town officials both agree that the parking lot on the Pearl Property is the optimal location for a new medical center in Telluride, but council feared that favoring one public benefit over another on the ballot would politicize the issue.
In 2008, the council agreed to send two ballot questions regarding the hospital district’s pursuit to build a new medical center on the Pearl. The first question asked voters if the town could sell the parking lot portion of the Pearl to the medical district; the question passed by five votes. The second questioned asked voters if the medical district could develop on the property, but was defeated by 47 votes.