Aspen City Council rewind: Frisch says his vote on heights was misunderstood
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2013
ASPEN – Aspen Councilman Adam Frisch said last week that he caught a little flak for his part in the Jan. 14 decision that effectively limits new developments in the downtown area to no more than two stories except when a developer proposes a third-story lodging use on the north side of a street.
Frisch, a first-term elected official who is considering running for mayor, recognizes that criticism comes with the territory. Elected officials catch flak all the time for how they vote or what they say in public meetings.
But what bothers him, he said, is that because he ended up siding with Mayor Mick Ireland and Councilmen Steve Skadron and Torre, some people believe he went over to the enemy, so to speak. They aren’t looking at why he actually did what he did.
“Someone said, ‘Adam, why’d you go over to the dark side?’ I said, ‘Listen, I decide how I want to vote based on what the issues are, not on who else is coming along for the ride,'” Frisch said.
The 4-1 vote on downtown development heights and uses was the culmination of a recent 10-month debate on the topic. Ireland, Skadron and Torre were in a camp that sought to slow the trend of free-market residential development in the commercial core and commercial districts in the heart of the city.
They differed over the details, but their general thinking was that third-story “penthouses” don’t bring vitality to the city because they often are occupied by part-time, wealthy residents. New or reconfigured building spaces would be better served by commercial uses, such as lodging, retail or some other locally serving enterprise, the argument went.
Though he wasn’t crazy about the three options that were laid out by the Community Development Department staff at last week’s regular meeting, Frisch ended up joining the majority and supporting the development restrictions. Only Councilman Derek Johnson voted against the proposal.
“I wish people wouldn’t just look at who you voted with but what you voted on,” Frisch said. “I think a little bit of that happened.”
Frisch said he doesn’t usually side with Ireland, Skadron and Torre on land-use decisions, but he had no power to change the direction in which the council majority was heading. In the end, he supported the development-restrictive proposal because it provided an exception for lodging and related uses, such as a restaurant component of a hotel.
“Anytime someone offers flexibility for lodging, I’m almost always going to be open to that,” Frisch said. “Adding more lodging downtown is a key component to vitality.”
During his spring 2011 campaign and in the 18 months he has been a council member, Frisch has fashioned himself as an independent political voice.
In December 2011, he was part of a unanimous council in supporting a zoning change for a piece of land off Power Plant Road near Castle Creek that sought to pave the way for the city’s proposed, and controversial, hydroelectric facility. During the fierce debate over the project for most of last year, however, he questioned the increase in the estimated cost of the project – from less than $7 million to a city-estimated $10.2 million – and said explanations and consequences for the higher cost didn’t make sense to him.
In the days leading up to the Nov. 6 advisory question that put the project to the public test, Frisch publicly announced he would be voting against it, suggesting that the project needed to be put on hold.
“When I voted against hydro (in the election), either people really liked it or really hated it, but they knew that I was frustrated with the government process and that I thought we were being closed-minded and not thinking big picture,” Frisch said. “On this last vote, they were surprised that I didn’t vote for what in their mind was a better option, which was that there needs to be some kind of free-market component on both sides of the street.
“But that was never an option. The option was 28 feet, two stories, unless the third floor is for lodging and lodging uses.”
Frisch said he doesn’t think anyone’s going to submit any major building or redevelopment proposals in the near future. Nearly a dozen development applications were filed early last year, beating the clock before the rules were temporarily changed in April to limit all new projects to 28 feet. Last week’s vote expanded on the strict 28-foot limitation.
“I wanted to acknowledge that people think that at least lodging has some kind of relevance or importance that we need to allow a third floor for,” Frisch said of his ultimate vote on the issue.
Frisch said he has been consistent in his disagreement with Ireland over free-market residential development in downtown Aspen.
“I just don’t buy the mayor’s argument that the healthiest way forward for the community is not to have another single free-market residence in town. He and I just disagree with that. I still stand my ground that I think it’s bad for the community in the long run if we have a permanent ban on downtown free-market residential development,” he said.
Frisch said the council minority on development issues doesn’t have the ability to overcome the majority or delay its decisions.
“Some people are pissed off I didn’t start (calling out people), but that’s not who I am,” Frisch said. “Unlike Washington, D.C., where the minority group has a fair bit of power through process and legislative tricks to do stuff, the Aspen City Council is set up as a 3-2 binary council right now. There’s very little power or action outside of just trying to speak from your heart about why you think the majority is in the wrong.
“But the chance of changing people’s views this late in the game is fairly hard. I guess I could start proposing things just to propose them, and when they get turned down, the people will know (where I stand).”
Frisch, who has publicly stated that he appreciates the fact that all of the council members get along personally despite their many differences, said he’s going to make a decision on the mayor’s race over the next few weeks. Torre has indicated that he plans to run. Skadron and Johnson are considering the race.
“I’m thinking about what to do,” Frisch said. “It would be fun to do, and I think I would do a good job, but that doesn’t mean that with everything else going on that it’s the right time.
“If half the people who asked me or encouraged me to run over the past two weeks promised to vote for me, I wouldn’t have to spend a nickel to get elected. There’s always that kind of encouragement out there.”