Aspen Area Community Plan still mired in controversy
ASPEN – Work on the 2011 Aspen Area Community Plan plods on. A document that’s been more than two years in the making – which at the beginning of this year was tentatively scheduled for adoption in April – is still undergoing revisions and sparking public debate.The Aspen and Pitkin County Planning and Zoning commissions, which have been charged by the city and county with rewriting the community plan, have a schedule that shows the process continuing through June and July. Meetings that carry the title “final review” are set for July 7, 12, 14 and 21. “Adoption,” presumably at the P&Z level, is scheduled for July 26.The Aspen City Council would vote to ratify the AACP sometime after that. The Board of County Commissioners is not required to adopt the plan; for Pitkin County, final adoption would be at the P&Z level.Whether the schedule will remain intact is anyone’s guess at this point. The current draft of plan continues to come under attack, mainly from local business leaders and representatives of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. Just last week, ACRA Chairman Warren Klug, the general manager of Aspen Square, continued his call for a new economic study – the business group is willing to pay for part of it – which he and others believe would shed new light on the community’s economic condition, possibly leading to further revisions of the AACP.It appears they are trying to stall the plan until it is more to their liking. The general concern is that the document discourages development and growth in the city, relying on economic data compiled four years ago when the local and national economies were booming.”I think that we all have to agree that from our perspective today, things are not going to bounce back to where they were in 2007-2008,” Klug said at a meeting of both P&Z commissions last Tuesday. “We’d like to see an update of the economic report [and a community plan] where we are addressing today’s situation, not where it was some years ago.”For instance, Klug said, the plan’s section on affordable housing mentions the rising cost of downvalley housing, “which is not the case,” and addresses an employment picture “which has dramatically changed; we now have many people unemployed or under-employed.”Aspen Community Development Director Chris Bendon is overseeing the AACP revision process at the city level. He could not be reached for comment late last week, but previously has said that a new study wouldn’t necessarily disrupt the process or negate the work that’s been done so far.However, Mayor Mick Ireland on Friday reiterated his position that there is no valid reason for a new study. The AACP is a community plan, reflecting the overall wishes of local residents as gleaned from numerous studies and group meetings, not an economic plan, reflecting the desires of the business segment, he has pointed out.”I don’t think we need to rehash the economics because I don’t think the AACP should be driven by economics,” he said. “Two years from now, by the time the study is complete, we may have another economic situation. I think the AACP should say what we want to have happen, not what the market wants to have happen.”A special City Council work session had been scheduled for Monday to deal with questions such as ACRA’s desire for an economic study and other hot-button issues, such as the requirement level for employee housing mitigation and whether certain items in the plan should be “regulatory” instead of guiding.That meeting was canceled Friday because it was apparent there would not be enough council members present to have a productive meeting.Bert Myrin, a city P&Z member, said the process is becoming increasingly frustrating for him and other city/county P&Z members, though he said he could not speak for his cohorts on the commissions, where opinions about many matters vary widely.After last Tuesday’s meeting, for example, Myrin suggested it would have been a good idea to correct ACRA board members and representatives of the lodging industry when certain misstatements about the recently released draft of the plan were voiced. Instead of correcting what some perceived as erroneous statements, the P&Z members listened to the comments and continued with the meeting.According to long-term city planner Jessica Garrow, the only clear direction from that meeting, which was designed to give city and county staff input on a host of hot-button issues, was that a majority of P&Z members said they were willing to consider coming down from the 100 percent level with regard to employee-housing mitigation policy in the draft AACP.In other words, for any new developments – such as a large hotel or facility with fractional owners, for example – the project’s developers would be required to offer affordable housing for its entire workforce, preferably on-site, or at least within the area’s defined “urban growth boundary.” The mitigation requirement could not be applied retroactively in the event of lodging renovations, as some business leaders have feared.Other issues, such as the regulatory-versus-guiding question, and a discussion on whether more should be done at the government level to promote affordable lodging, went unresolved and will have to be addressed at a later meeting.Myrin said myriad factors have been at play in slowing down the process to finish the 2011 AACP. The city’s municipal election process, which came to a conclusion when Ireland and two council members were elected May 3 without going to a June runoff, was one factor. The AACP became part of the debate at mayoral and council political forums and elsewhere, including newspaper questionnaires answered by each candidate.Myrin mentioned that the P&Zs have well-intentioned and hard-working volunteers, as evidenced by more than 60 meetings held since April 2009. But they don’t have a strong spokesperson, someone who’s willing to champion the work that’s been done so far, stand up to outside interests and defend the plan as something that’s reflective of the direction the overall community wants to take.He sent e-mails last week to Bendon and other P&Z members concerning his belief that city staff should write letters to critics that correct any “inaccuracies or misconceptions” about the plan that have been stated in a public setting.”For example, [former Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud] and the general managers of a number of lodges seem to think the AACP would foreclose lodging renovations at such places as Aspen Square, The Little Nell, the Aspen Alps, the Gant or the Christmas Inn,” Myrin wrote in an e-mail to P&Z members and city and county planners.”False factual assumptions included that all affordable-housing mitigation is required on site and that 100 percent mitigation for new development means we will house 100 percent of all present employees,” he continued. “On P&Z, we rely on staff to make sure that the community is given accurate information.”Myrin received a bevy or responses, but did not obtain a consensus on the question of correcting errors made by business or lodging representatives.”I would not be anxious to reply publicly about any declaration of fact by the public during a meeting, whether misleading or outright misinformation, as we would only open an endless debate with no solution,” replied city P&Z member LJ Erspamer.Myrin said he thought it might be a good idea to meet individually with the plan’s critics to discuss their perceptions. But special counsel for the city attorney’s office has advised against such conversations, he said.Looking at the big picture, Myrin believes the AACP is not the real issue at hand. The problem lies with city codes relating to development, which were loosened by the city P&Z and City Council in the middle of the last decade through a series of legislative actions to create what many describe as “infill.”Then and now, those codes were and are out of kilter with the wishes of a majority of Aspenites, Myrin said. An example is the proposed Aspen Art Museum project at the former Wienerstube site, which many in the community oppose based on the project’s scale and mass. However, based on current codes as adopted through “infill,” the project meets the city’s requirements.Instead of spending so much time on the AACP rewrite, the P&Z should first revise city land-use codes based on community desires and take those suggestions to the council, Myrin said.It may be a chicken-or-egg question. Ireland believes the AACP needs to be completed first and then code revisions will follow. “The first thing I was told when I was elected four years ago for the first time was, ‘Don’t alter the land-use code because you’re going to have a new AACP.’ And I thought it would be finished a lot sooner than it will be, but I’m certainly not willing to put it off for a couple of more years while we do another [study].”Myrin also takes issue with the way the document recently was revised at the city staff level. Certain items the P&Zs wanted to remain in the draft were omitted, including any references to “infill,” seen by some P&Z commissioners and many in the community as acknowledgment of one of the sins of the recent past. The business community also has voiced concerns about what they feel are revisionist inclusions that carry a negative tone toward development.”We didn’t give them direction to do that,” Myrin said about the omissions of “infill” references.Ireland said some friction between city staff and P&Z members is not unusual.”There’s always some friction among all these intelligent people,” he said. “I think the P&Z has the right to adopt whatever language it wants to adopt, and if it doesn’t want to adopt the staff recommendation it can amend it and adopt it as it sees fit.”Ireland said he is hopeful that the plan will be completed and adopted this summer.”It’s under the P&Zs’ control. We don’t tell them what to do” with regard to the AACP rewrite, the mayor firstname.lastname@example.org
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