Red Mountain homeowner: Board wanted to ‘embarrass’ me
June 10, 2017
Pitkin County commissioners don't care about a Red Mountain homeowner's landscaping and only wanted to showboat and shame him during an adversarial hearing last fall, the man said Friday.
In addition, vitamin-maker Andrew Lessman said the work that recently started on the hillside below his home, where in 2015 he cut the tops off 127 cottonwood trees to improve his views, could have started months ago if not for the county dragging its feet on an official agreement.
"They simply enjoyed grandstanding," Lessman said Friday in a phone interview from the South of France. "But when it came time to resolve the issue they suddenly lost interest and we had to pressure them to resolve it.
"That tells me the county is not really interested in this community. They were interested in trying to embarrass me."
Board Chairman George Newman said that isn't true.
"We don't embarrass anyone," Newman said. "If someone takes it that way, it's unfortunate for that person. (But) we always have the community in mind.
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"People need to follow the rules. You can't just do whatever you want."
Pitkin County authorities red-tagged Lessman's 10-bedroom home at 76 Placer Lane in October 2015 after neighbors complained about the tree-cutting.
A year later, an angry Board of County Commissioners addressed the incident and voted to force Lessman to replant the hillside and submit annual progress reports about the new plantings for 20 years. A county planner told commissioners at the time that Lessman, who was not present at the October 2016 meeting, had sought permission to remove the cottonwoods several times previously but had been denied.
At the time, former Commissioner Michael Owsley compared the cottonwood trees to photos of the Ardennes region of Belgium after battle. The area hosted battles in both World War I and World War II. Owsley proposed the 20-year plan "to send a message that if you alter the landscape without permission, you will be responsible for that landscape restitution for 20 years."
Lessman filed a lawsuit against the county protesting the 20-year plan as illegal and asked the commissioners to reconsider, which they did.
At the commissioner meeting to reconsider in November, Owsley remained angry.
"It's an outrage," he said at the time. "I'm so upset by this I can't tell you. I'm appalled by the actions of the applicant."
Lessman and his attorney attended the November meeting, when Lessman admitted he previously had been denied permission to remove the cottonwoods, which he said were dead or diseased and dying, but was told he could prune them. He characterized the 12 feet to 15 feet he cut off the tops of the 127 trees as pruning, which he said would make the trees healthier.
A forester for the city of Aspen disputed those statements, saying that topping trees leads to structural instability and problems with insects and disease.
In the end, commissioners voted to lower the monitoring to five years, during which Lessman will have to submit twice-yearly reports about the replanted vegetation.
Lessman said he agreed to those conditions, but that his lawyer had to repeatedly prod county officials into responding. Lessman dismissed his lawsuit in February, according to court records, but permits for the work, which is to be completed and inspected by the county by July 1, were not issued by the county until May 22, said Chris Bryan, Lessman's lawyer.
"I'm surprised it took this long," Bryan said Friday.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely admitted Friday the process of cementing the final resolution took time, though Lessman could have applied for a permit before that resolution was final.
"I know it did take longer than usual," Ely said. "But there was no action by the county to delay progress."
Further, Commissioner Patti Clapper said Friday she never forgot about the issue and has continued to bring it up over the past few months. Specifically, she said county officials have tracked down the Grand Junction-based tree trimming company that did the work on Lessman's property and are in the process of drafting a letter explaining the rules in Pitkin County for future reference.
"In my case, I was letting the community know that we don't take things like this lightly," Clapper said. "You need to know the rules when you begin and you need to follow them like everyone else."
At the November meeting, Lessman said he cut the tops off the trees to make them healthier, not to improve his views. But Friday, he said the view was one of the reasons for the action.
"Part of the reason is it definitely improves the view of the property," Lessman said.
That was obvious, Clapper said Friday.
"Excuse me while I choke on that," she said. "It was to enormously enhance his viewplane."
Lessman, who owns vitamin supplement manufacturer ProCaps Laboratories, said the experience has cost him at least $50,000 in legal fees, while replanting the hillside will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The area won't be replaced with the non-native cottonwoods, but will instead feature native plants and trees like aspen and spruce. Workers began replanting the hillside this week.
"It will be a beautiful hillside when it's done," Lessman said. "But at great expense."