County, school board butt heads over Aspen teacher housing
December 17, 2008
ASPEN ” The Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen School Board on Tuesday began hashing out their differences on building teacher housing in Woody Creek, but continue to be locked in a stalemate.
The school board believes it has the authority to bypass the county review process and build six duplexes on its Woody Creek property with a state review.
But several county commissioners believe the district must ” or should ” follow the county review process for the rezoning the project requires. To further complicate matters, a county review process could result in a denial because the property is outside the urban growth boundary.
“For me, you’ve really challenged us, in a friendly way, of course,” Commissioner Jack Hatfield said. “We’re going to have to do a gut check on what our move is in response.”
After the meeting, district Superintendent Diana Sirko said the school board would discuss the meeting, and its next move, among themselves. Commissioner Michael Owsley said he hoped the school board would return, perhaps for a series of meetings.
Asked if the commissioners would ever sue the school board over the matter, Owsley said he didn’t know.
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“I would definitely hope it wouldn’t go to a lawsuit,” he said.
But he noted that when Grace Church asserted its right to build anywhere it wanted, the matter went to court.
The Aspen School District purchased the Woody Creek land, which it calls West Ranch, in 1998, receiving county approval to build 10 deed-restricted units and one free-market home. In 1999, it built 10 units.
But in 2000, the growth boundary was pulled in, effectively putting West Ranch outside of the boundary.
Even so, the school district now intends to build, with bond sales authorized by voters in November, six duplexes on the undeveloped free-market site.
On Tuesday, Sirko expressed a desire to be “a good neighbor,” while still expressing the district’s belief in its authority to build. She highlighted the district’s need, explaining that 45 percent of older teachers will retire within five years, and hiring is difficult without available housing. She further argued that a good school district is key to a quality community.
Building housing at West Ranch would also provide the opportunity to “upgrade” that community by building carports and community areas, Sirko said.
Commissioners Dorothea Farris and Patti Kay-Clapper also noted that the county land-use code allows the commissioners to make exceptions to the growth boundary for affordable housing.
“I guess I’m somewhat disturbed that the answer is sort of immediately that we can’t do this when we worked so hard to put the affordable housing option into the land-use code,” Farris said.
But Commissioner Rachel Richards asked for an assurance that the build-out of West Ranch wouldn’t set a precedent. She worried that the district might later decide to purchase land in Emma or Old Snowmass, and build more housing.
Hatfield also worried the project could set a precedent for other organizations, such as the hospital, that want to build employee housing.
And he noted that the West Ranch project would inevitably be car-oriented, despite the teacher bus that provides rides to and from school to educators.
Owsley encouraged the district to build below-grade parking structures so it could put teacher housing on top of the current parking lots ” and focus on making the campus as car-free as possible.
“Parking lots in Aspen are really too valuable to put cars on,” he said.
But Kay-Clapper noted that a no-car campus was not going to happen quickly enough to allow the district to provide housing as soon as possible. She added that the county had tried housing without parking, at Marolt, and found it did not work.
“This is an unfortunate circumstance, because we are the same community,” Hatfield said at the end of the meeting. “At least we got to air it out. That’s the positive.”