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Merriott, Byars spat turns ugly at trustees meeting

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Both hurl insults at each other

By John Colson

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Sopris Sun Staff Writer

At a meeting on March 9, what seemed to be ongoing enmity between two trustees — Frosty Merriott and Katrina Byars — erupted into a full-fledged argument that prompted Byars to leave the meeting early after indicating she may step down from her position on the Board of Trustees.

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Merriott, reacting to Byars’ remarks about the need for housing among the town’s poorer residents, suggested that Byars was thinking more of her own needs rather than those of the broader community, and Byars accused Merriott of inappropriately attacking her personally at this meeting and on previous occasions.

The exchange boiled over at a point nearly three hours into the four-hour meeting, during a wide-ranging discussion about adopting the recently completed Unified Development Code’s (UDC) and its provisions concerning affordable housing.

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At one point, Byars remarked that since she was first elected in 2014 she had been a consistent advocate for non-traditional affordable housing options such as what are known as “tiny houses” and other “alternative housing” concepts.

She maintained that there have been indications that town ordinances make it difficult for anyone to build a “modest and inexpensive development” that might offer housing to people who could not afford to buy into the traditional housing market.

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She said she had hoped the UDC would include provisions that would allow for creation of  “a temporary dwelling” such as utility sheds, recreational vehicles or other structures on lots meant for more traditional housing.

Such regulations, she said, would mean that a local who “does not have the means to build” a larger, traditional home could still find a place to live, perhaps in a recreational vehicle, a temporary tiny house or even a utility shed or outbuilding while they work on ways to find more typical housing.

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Byars termed her thinking as a need for “some kind of flexible inclusion for emergency, transitional housing,” an avenue for the town to “test the waters” about relatively atypical housing concepts.

“I’m just trying to open up a little bit of space,” she said, to help with local problems such as homelessness or temporary housing crises brought about by, say, not being able to find a job.

Reacting to Byars’ statements, Mayor Stacey Bernot told the other trustees, “I think this is a topic that we need to address” as part of the ongoing debates over affordable housing, which the town has acknowledged as a dire need as home prices escalate during the recovery from the recent Great Recession.

Town Manager Jay Harrington noted that the town has occupancy guidelines and regulations that would need to be revised to allow such things to happen, and that the town must guard against having people living in homes that are “substandard for health-safety issues.”

Byars agreed that the town should avoid endorsing substandard housing, but wanted the trustees to consider the needs of low-income residents rather than “pretending this (problem) doesn’t exist.”

That remark drew a sharp rebuke from Bernot, who said the trustees have been asked for specific ideas along these lines in the past and that “it didn’t happen.” Bernot added that it would be inappropriate for the trustees to insert something of this sort into the UDC at the last minute, since the revision of the town’s development codes has been in the works for two years.

“This could have been fleshed out months ago,” Bernot declared.

Byars, however, said she has spoken about the matter many times at meetings and was not “bringing it up at the eleventh hour” She then offered proposed language for insertion into the UDC about “live-work” arrangements what would offer options to people “who don’t have a place to live.” “Like yourself,” remarked Merriott, prompting Byars to stand up and apparently get ready to leave.

Others at the meeting interceded, getting the discussion moving again and offering ideas about how the matter can be further addressed, as Byars stood by her chair.

Trustee Allyn Harvey suggested the town formally look into her ideas about “live-work” housing and ways to provide temporary housing to those who need it.

When it came time for her to speak, Byars suggested that some trustees needed to be educated in non-violent communication and tearfully admitted to her fellow trustees, “I’m currently displaced, and I don’t have a place to go.”

She termed Merriott’s remarks as “an intentional jab,” which she termed “insulting” and “disempowering” toward her, indicating that this was not the first time and continuing, “I do not personally attack other members of this board, and you do.”

She said she was speaking up for those in town in dire financial straits, “not only for myself, but for the other members of this community that aren’t rich white men already,” pointing at Merriott.

“I resent that,” Merriott responded. “You know, if you got a job you could find a place to live.”

It was a that point that Byars gathered up her things and left the room, stating as she went that she would “keep the board advised if I’m able to maintain my service” as a trustee.

The mayor, without directly chastising Merriott for his remarks, noted that “we’re spiraling in a really bad spot.” She said the trustees all need to keep emotions and impatience in check, and “maybe be hard on an issue, and not on our colleague or a member of the public.”

The Sopris Sun’s attempts to reach Byars for an update on her statements on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 17, 2016.

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