A bad idea, with good intentions, that must be rejected | AspenTimes.com

A bad idea, with good intentions, that must be rejected

The Aspen Times Editorial

Pitkin County planners have come up with a plan that is nominally intended to help solve housing and land-use problems, but which would be disastrous if passed into law.At a hearing this week, the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission rightly recommended against passing what is known as the “affordable housing overlay.” This legislation would create a new, highly restrictive affordable housing zone that would make the development of such housing at reasonable densities virtually impossible in almost all of the county.To some extent, the goals of this new zone are laudable. It would keep housing close to the highway, accessible to mass transit and not too far from the city of Aspen. It would also cluster the housing and create tracts of open space nearby. Certainly, these are appropriate goals. At the same time, this zoning would make it almost impossible to actually develop any housing – if only because there are so few sites that can meet these stringent, if appropriate, conditions.There is another problem with this zoning. It can be seen as aimed, all too clearly, at blocking one single very major, very controversial housing project: John Musick’s W/J Ranch development.To be sure, putting an end to the W/J Ranch proposal is – like the other aims of the proposed zoning – a laudable goal. There is no question that the enormous development proposed for that ranch, whether 778 homes or 400 homes, is absolutely inappropriate and must never be built.But killing that project through Draconian zoning regulations is all wrong. To begin with, Mr. Musick, a skilled attorney, would undoubtedly tie the county up in legal knots if the new zoning blocked his project. Lawsuits would be filed and the result would certainly be expensive and might even result in Mr. Musick being granted development approval by the courts. This would be the worst possible result.Moreover, a new zoning that affects the entire county could have unforeseen, undesirable effects. This law, if approved, could block some entirely appropriate affordable housing project that has yet to be conceived.The fact is, this proposed zoning is an attempt to avoid directly facing two very difficult issues.The first is the W/J project itself. It must be stopped, this is true. But it must be dealt with head-on, not through the back door of zoning regulations. It must be denied on its own demerits. The resolution of the W/J struggle will not be simple. It will likely require creative thinking, genuine negotiation, painful compromise and perhaps some cold, hard cash. It is clear that Mr. Musick has no one’s interests but his own at heart, but, still, he holds a powerful legal position and he must be dealt with – honestly and directly.The second difficult issue is one that is hinted at in the restrictions of the proposed zoning. Affordable housing is a problem of the city of Aspen and it should be solved by and within the city itself. Scattering housing throughout the valley, willy-nilly, wherever a bit of land can be found, is not the way to solve the problem. We have said before – and will repeat again – a way must be found to create a major housing development that is virtually a continuation of the existing city. Forcing more people onto the highway – whether in buses, trains or private cars – is not the right answer.It has been suggested that housing could be built on the existing Aspen Municipal Golf Course (which could conceivably allow the golf course to be moved to the W/J Ranch – a land swap that might provide a solution to both knotty problems). Although this idea has yet to be seriously investigated, it makes too much sense to reject flatly.Undoubtedly, there are other possible solutions that may present themselves.But we are not so pressed for time that we should allow ourselves to be stampeded into passing what is obviously a product of desperate thinking. This “affordable housing overlay,” while not entirely without merit as a concept, is certainly not what is needed right now in Pitkin County. The Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners would be well advised to follow the recommendation of the P&Z, and reject this proposed legislation.

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