Aspen Area Community Plan: Bible or bedlam?
ASPEN – It’s 4:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Aspen City Hall. At a roundtable in the dimly lit Sister Cities meeting room, 10 people are poring over a document in a scene that’s been recreated countless times over the last two years.The work that consumes them is tedious, painstaking, deliberate – an editing chore of the highest caliber. They are debating terminology for the 2011 Aspen Area Community Plan, and the job they are tackling does not seem like fun.”I have an issue with the chapter title, ‘Environmental Quality,'” one participant says to the others. “Maybe we should say ‘Environmental Stewardship.’ We use the word ‘quality’ in so many other places. I think it could be confusing to people.”Regarding another section of the plan, there is considerable discussion over whether to use the word “aspiration,” or its stronger counterpart, “goal.” Someone else in the room prefers the term, “objective.”Another editor in the group has a problem with the term, “fossil fuels,” and wonders whether it’s too narrow. He throws out a broader alternative: “non-renewable energy.” The others in the room assure him that “fossil fuels” is commonly used and understandable. And so the group – made up of Planning and Zoning commissioners from Aspen and Pitkin County, along with a few city and county planners who keep the dialogue moving forward – presses ahead for another two hours.They are aware of their April deadline, and of the importance of their decisions. And, like many others involved directly and indirectly in the update of the city-county community plan, they are growing tired.”It really has taken too long,” says county Community Development Director Cindy Houben, one of the staffers helping to steer the process. Houben also was involved in the first version of the AACP, completed in 1993. An update of that document was finished in 2000, and took considerably less time than the plan’s current overhaul.”Everybody feels it,” Houben says. “The time that P&Z and staff have put into this … it has taken forever. Everybody wants it to be finished.”Houben acknowledges that the Board of County Commissioners and the Aspen City Council are ready for the document – partly a guide to future government decisions, partly a regulatory roadmap – to be finished as well. But, the work must be done, and done right.The AACP update was supposed to be finished last year. As officials explain it, the BOCC and City Council handed off the project to both planning commissions, whose members are unpaid volunteers.Once the commissioners got into the nitty-gritty, they felt it would be irresponsible to do a simple update, so they decided to forge a more thorough, all-encompassing plan, one that even includes recommended “action items” and statements on societal issues. For some, there has been a learning curve, and they’ve had to seek expert advice.Another hurdle to the plan’s completion, according to Houben, has been inconsistent community participation. Though there was a high-profile campaign to solicit input from local residents and other stakeholders, getting that input has not been easy.”We’ve seen special interests show up on occasion, but we haven’t always had a lot of citizen participation,” Houben says. “It’s frustrating.”The work being done by P&Z members in the trenches of the AACP process has been invaluable, she adds.”The citizens on the P&Z are just volunteers, but they have really dedicated themselves to this. What they have done is just amazing. In my mind, it’s too bad that isn’t reflected more in the rest of the community.”
The draft of the 2011 AACP, released for public consumption last fall, is an 89-page document that can be viewed on the city-county government website, aspenpitkin.com. Basically, the plan is a vision for the future of the city and the unincorporated areas of the county west of Aspen that have been designated as part of the city’s “urban growth boundary.”The finished product will be similar to the draft, officials say, but changes in format and content have been under way for months, and will likely continue all the way up until the plan is adopted – an action that may or may not occur in April.Jessica Garrow, a long-range city planner who has been involved in the process from the beginning, provided estimates last week showing that 9,700 staff hours have been spent on the project.From 2008, when government staff began seeking public input on the plan, through today, the effort has cost the city and county an estimated $250,000. Expenses include meeting room rentals, surveys and the cost of conducting meetings, including the November “clicker sessions” that used technology to gauge opinions about the draft.Garrow explains that the process to update the AACP actually began in 2007, with research to create two forerunners: the State of Aspen Area Report and the Economic White Paper, which were released in September 2008. The total cost for those two reports was $250,000. Research for those documents formed much of the basis for the retooled community plan.So, when taking the two previous reports into account and factoring in the remaining work to be done, the entire process will end up costing more than a half-million dollars.One need not be a policy wonk to understand the AACP’s basic tenets. There are sections on managing growth; the “West of Castle Creek Corridor” (or gateway to Aspen); transportation; housing; parks, recreation and open space; environmental quality; historic preservation; sustaining the Aspen Idea; planning for a Lifelong Aspenite (government’s goal of providing public services for all phases of life); and the urban growth boundary.The plan also includes breakout boxes and photographs that seek to inform readers about the philosophy behind it. It’s all put together in an easy-to-digest, magazine-style format.Garrow says the city and county wanted to make the process inclusive to the entire community from the very beginning. She said some meetings have been sparsely attended while others have reached targeted levels.”The process is really based on direct democracy, getting lots of opinions from lots of different community members,” she says. “What we wanted to do was make sure it wasn’t just the ‘usual suspects’ who come to public meetings. We wanted to make sure people who are vested members of the community – but don’t have time (to participate in government) because they have two jobs or they have kids – had an opportunity to be involved.”Following large and small public gatherings to garner input, a preliminary draft was created in early 2009. Then the planning and zoning commissions were brought in to review the draft, and their work on the details has continued to the present.Though a new draft was released to the public in September, planners felt more input was needed. Results of the December survey mailed to 2,000 voters and property owners to gauge opinions about the September draft will be made public in mid-February, Garrow says. “The questions focused on what’s in the document to see if people agree with statements made and policies in the document,” she says.Like Houben, Garrow has witnessed some of the fatigue experienced by many of the people involved in the effort, especially among P&Z members.”In December, we basically said, you need to take some time off, you need to be rejuvenated,” Garrow says. “But I think everybody is really dedicated to seeing this through.”
With the process to create a new community plan entering its stretch run, more critics of the 2011 document are starting to surface.On Jan. 25, during a discussion at the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s monthly board meeting, some members voiced concerns with the document, generally saying that it lacks vision.Aspen Skiing Co. senior vice president David Perry urged “pushing the pause button” on the plan to address its future vision. Former Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud said the plan “downplays, if it acknowledges at all, that we are a resort community.”In response, Garrow says instead of using individual comments from specific groups to reshape the plan, P&Z members and government planners are considering comments “as a whole, as a body of work.” That said, ACRA’s concerns will be addressed, she says.”What we’ve said throughout this process is that all of the pieces of public feedback … should be used to make a decision,” she says. “No one piece of information is better or worse than anything else.”In December, Aspen Councilman Dwayne Romero and other council members questioned part of the plan’s tone, saying some of the language carried an anti-growth message that could be seen as derogatory toward developers. With those concerns in mind, P&Z members and staffers earlier this month made subtle changes to the document.County Commissioner Jack Hatfield also has expressed frustration with the plan. Hatfield says the plan is “city-centric,” and doesn’t do enough to address issues in unincorporated Pitkin County within the urban growth boundary west of Aspen. “I don’t know where the line can be drawn between city and county in this plan,” he says.Hatfield says a better approach would be a “sub-master plan” that would deal only with unincorporated areas of the county within the urban growth boundary. “There are some real challenges we have – such as the development of the Buttermilk area – and this plan doesn’t adequately deal with it because we’re talking about doing more planning later,” Hatfield says. “When I look at the current work – and this is no criticism of the individuals doing it – I think the county should step back and concentrate on areas that are relative to the county. As a county commissioner, I do not want to get involved in planning interiors of municipal areas.”Under state law, the Aspen City Council must pass an ordinance to adopt the plan; at the county level, the plan will be adopted by the county P&Z, an advisory panel to the Board of County Commissioners. Thus, at the county level, the AACP will be more of a guiding document than at the city level, where it will carry more regulatory weight.Like others, Hatfield also worries about the length of time it has taken to shape the 2011 AACP. “I don’t think at this point we should be doing surveys and holding public forums,” he says. “We should be honing down on this.”He adds that the document should be more of a guiding plan, free of government action items – strong recommendations to change city or county laws in order to conform with the AACP. “Can we predict the need for every incremental step in the future? No.”Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland defends the process and the plan itself. He wrote two chapters of the original AACP back in 1993. He says the 2011 version is more inclusive of the overall community’s input than the 2000 rewrite, and it should be an asset to those who will use it.”Every Aspen process will take more time than you think it should,” Ireland says. “Aspen is home to many Alpha dogs who are certain that their view is correct.”With a community plan, as is the case with most local government issues, Ireland says it’s impossible to please everyone.”People want everything,” Ireland says. “They want small-town feel and big-city amenities and low taxes. They want affordable housing but not too much. People want a lot and they’re used to getting a lot because this community provides an abundance of everything. There’s just no place like it on earth.”No process is perfect, Ireland says. Having worked on the 1993 community plan and bearing witness to the update of the 2000 plan, he says he has learned that a lack of inclusion can lead to problems. That’s why he’s worked with city and county planners to ensure the current process includes as many people as it can, so that it’s representative of the area’s demographics. Ireland pushed for the additional survey in December after noticing that the clicker sessions to gauge opinions on the draft were dominated by older citizens and longtime property owners.Garrow says she’s enjoyed working on the plan, but is even more excited about what will happen when it’s finished. “Everyone feels like we’re in the last stretch of the marathon, and soon we can get to the implementation, which is really the exciting stuff.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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