A Medical Center or ‘Other Permitted Uses’?
TELLURIDE - The Telluride Town Council voted 3 -2 on Wednesday to ask voters in November whether or not the preferred use of Lot B on the Pearl Property is a for new regional medical center, and then unanimously approved specific language for the ballot.
The decision comes after months of discussion and controversy about how and where to expand the bursting-at-the-seams Telluride Medical Center, and on the heels of an Aug. 15 meeting where the Telluride Town Council informally agreed to ask the electorate to decide the highest and best use for Lot B , offering three options: a medical center, a recreation and community center, or affordable housing.
Complicating matters, on Aug. 12, the Telluride Hospital District held a public forum to discuss possible sites for a new clinic, but did not consider the Pearl Property as an alternative, saying the town had not replied to a Request for Information. However, during that forum, THD Board President Larry Mallard did say that Lot B in Telluride could still be considered as a site for the medical center, stating “While we don’t even have an offer from Telluride on the RV Lot and we don’t even really have the ability to discuss it here tonight, if Telluride gives us the RV lot for consideration, it will be evaluated against other sites based on the information that has already been provided.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, before turning to the language of the ballot question itself, councilors had a somewhat heated discussion about whether or not to proceed with the plan to submit a ballot question.
Councilor Thom Carnevale worried that giving voters three options, as agreed upon during the Aug. 15 meeting, would lead to a plurality rather than a majority of voters determining what the property’s best use would be. He also argued, “We haven’t had enough public discussion about what should legitimately go on Lot B.”
Standing firmly by the position he took during the Aug. 15 meeting, Councilor Bob Saunders said that he is against submitting a ballot because, he said, the Telluride Hospital District has placed far too much urgency and pressure on Telluride to make a decision before the community is properly informed and ready to vote.
Saunders also expressed the view that placing three options on the ballot would be inherently unfair, explaining, “The people who want the medical center are a small group with money, and they are going to push this down everyone’s throat.”
He argued that proponents of keeping the medical center in Telluride, as opposed to alternative locations under consideration in Mountain Village and at Lawson Hill, have formed a political action committee with money and clout to push people to vote in favor of the medical center, while the other two options are not even being addressed, suggesting that offering voters two choices, rather than three, by asking voters if they want a medical center on Lot B, or another, unspecified, as-of-yet undecided public use, could help ensure that the outcome of the election would be by a majority vote, rather than a plurality.
Councilor Todd Brown disagreed that money can buy in election in Telluride, but stressed the importance of crafting the language on the ballot to clearly inform voters what they are choosing by their vote, and agreed with Saunders, suggesting a simple, two-alternatives choice on the ballot.
Council members also stressed the election would be solely advisory and non-binding.
Town Attorney Kevin Geiger explained that should the electorate decide that the medical center is the preferred use for Lot B, the town would still have to negotiate an acceptable arrangement with Hospital District that the town would be comfortable with, implying that if acceptable terms cannot be reached, the medical center would ultimately not go on Lot B.
“It still requires all the necessary planning, bonding, and fundraising,” he said, “but we do want to check in with the electorate as to what their preferred use is first.”
Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser clarified, stating, “If the ballot passes, all it is saying is that putting the medical center on Lot B is a priority, and town is willing to negotiate. THD still has to decide if they want it there. It’s not even on the final list at this point, and is only still being considered because there has been so much discussion about keeping the medical center here.
“If people vote yes, Lot B is a good place for the medical center, it is up to THD” to say yes or no using it for the medical center, Fraser added. “If people vote no, Lot B will not be offered to THD, and no medical center will be built there.”
During public comment, Mark Izard, speaking in support of a recreation/community center on Lot B, instead, said, “When we talk about money, we do feel like it’s David versus Goliath, when it comes to us versus the medical center. There were so many people at the last meeting, and so many people in town talking about keeping the medical center in Telluride … there is no question we will be outspent.”
Izard went on, however, to commend the town for putting the issue on the ballot and told council of his plans to encourage people to start a committee to get the ball rolling on obtaining support for putting a recreation/community center on Lot B. “I think a rec center would be the most beneficial use for everyone,” he added, “because everyone has a chance to use it. There is everything from dog-training lessons to scuba diving lessons to kids’ birthday parties.” Izard and other rec center supporters will hold a planning and strategy meeting Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 5:30 p.m. on the Wilkinson Library terrace.
Ericka Henschel, another proponent of a recreation/community center on Lot B, worried that a three-pronged option on the ballot would be ambiguous and unfair.
“This whole process has been rushed because of the medical center,” she said. “And the whole vote is about the medical center. It will not be a fair election and it will divide the community, unless the ballot solely asks whether people want a medical center on Lot B or not. If it is worded any other way, it will split the vote and the medical center could have the ability to build on Lot B without even getting a true majority.”
After hearing public comment, Geiger asked council for direction as to whether the language in the ballot should include a list of options other than the medical center, or whether he should draft language giving voters a choice of voting to put a medical center on Lot B, or “other uses as permitted by the public purpose zoning standards, to be determined by the council at a future time.”
Council split on the issue 3-1, with the latter option receiving the majority vote.
After a brief recess, during which Geiger was instructed to re-draft ballot language in line with the majority decision, he returned with a ballot asking voters to choose between a medical center, or “other uses as permitted within the Public Purpose Zone District,” a district Lot B officially falls into after the electorate voted to re-zone the property about six months ago so it could be used for public benefit.
During further public comment, Lara Young asked council, “Please explain to me how this is not a weighted ballot initiative if the choice for the voters is ‘medical center or other?’”
Fraser explained that there are no less than 10 items the property could be used for within the Public Purposes Zone District and continued that, “It is possible that a better use for Lot B could come up at a later date that is not affordable housing or a rec. center. The list can fluctuate.”
After more debate, council directed Geiger to further clarify the ballot question by providing a non-exhaustive list of a few examples of “other uses” voters would be contemplating if they vote “no” on the medical center.
Geiger’s second draft of the ballot question, asking the electorate to choose between a regional medical center or “other uses as permitted within the Public Purpose Zone District, such as affordable housing, a community and recreation center, etc., to be decided by the Telluride Town Council at a future time” ultimately won out, with council unanimously voting yes to submit the ballot questions with language as stated.