Aspen blogger under fire for alleged underhanded antics
December 1, 2010
ASPEN – The Red Ant has encountered an ant eater.
Elizabeth Milias – a right-wing, anti-establishment blogger who writes commentary on Aspen civic issues as The Red Ant – is being threatened with a defamation lawsuit if she doesn’t retract information on her latest online posting.
Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission member Marcella Larsen claims Milias used numerous factual misrepresentations on Nov. 23 to launch a personal and malicious attack against her. Larsen indicated in a letter to the Aspen City Council and the Pitkin County commissioners that she’s mad as hell about Milias’ tactics and she’s not going to take it anymore.
Those types of attacks on members of volunteer boards will have a chilling effect on civic involvement if left unchecked, Larsen wrote in the e-mail sent Monday.
“So, that’s why I’m taking a stand here – demanding that the defamatory statements be retracted,” Larsen’s e-mail said. “And, if they aren’t, I will pursue appropriate remedies because I believe it is important to do whatever I can to ensure that our public officials and volunteers are not subject to the same type of meritless, tabloid-type attacks.
“As you all know, there is a long list of other people who have been harassed/defamed by the Red Ant, including some of you,” Larsen continued.
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Larsen’s e-mail was obtained by The Aspen Times. She declined to discuss the issue when contacted Wednesday. She said she wanted to give Milias time to respond to the demand for a retraction before discussing the issue further.
Milias told The Aspen Times in an e-mail that she has had contact with Larsen and is seeking additional information.
“People ‘demand’ that I make changes all the time,” Milias wrote. “I have made a request of Marcella since her ‘demand’ so the ball is in her court. I have no further comment.”
The dispute is over Milias’ allegations that Larsen used a position of power in the past to benefit financially from a land-use decision, and that she stands to benefit again in a different situation.
Milias claimed that the Pitkin County commissioners gave special treatment to the estate of Larsen’s grandfather, Charles Urschel, in a mid-1990s land-use decision. The value of Urschel’s single-family home lots were then enhanced by “new restrictive rules” on house sizes that were allegedly prepared by Larsen when she served as assistant attorney for Pitkin County, according to Milias.
There was no explanation of why the county commissioners would be willing to do the Urshcels favors nor how Larsen swayed the entire county bureaucracy to go along with rules that would benefit her family.
“Marcella got what she wanted and made millions,” Milias wrote in her Nov. 23 Red Ant posting. “Then, like the princess in a castle, she pulled the draw-bridge shut. She’s now doing all she can to prevent anyone from doing anything remotely similar.”
As a volunteer member of the city planning and zoning commission, Larsen is helping craft the Aspen Area Community Plan, a blueprint for the type and amount of Aspen’s growth. Milias contended that transferable development rights (TDRs) allegedly owned by Larsen’s family will become more valuable under new community plan guidelines.
Larsen wrote in her letter to the City Council and county commissioners that Milias made critical errors in her blog. “The truth is that I don’t own any TDRs, and never have,” she wrote.
Larsen also claimed her late grandfather’s estate got approvals from Pitkin County that became the model for the TDR program, which is designed to preserve agricultural and rural land and shift development to more urban areas. Under that program, extra density is allowed where the county deems it appropriate, as long as other development rights are extinguished elsewhere.
Larsen said that’s what happened with her family’s approvals. That model was later used to preserve portions of several high-profile properties, such as the Child ranch, the Harvey ranch, the Paepcke family property, the Stein ranch and the Zoline family property.
Larsen’s letter said she was targeted by Milias simply because she is working on the a community plan that Milias opposes. The Red Ant’s latest blog was critical of both the content of the plan and the process used to prepare it.
The personal attack, Larsen said, is an effort to undermine the community plan.
“To conclude, I believe that honest and rigorous debate about ideas is critical to a functioning democracy,” Larsen wrote. “Malicious personal attacks and untrue statements regarding public officials and volunteers under the guise of ‘reporting,’ however, threaten that honest dialogue and chill the civic involvement that is so important to a robust and thinking society.”
If Larsen ends up pursing a defamation lawsuit against Milias, The Red Ant will have the same freedom of speech protections as a traditional newspaper. Steven Zansberg, an attorney specializing in media issues who works with the Colorado Press Association, said case law has established that newspapers and other entities disseminating information are equal.
“There is no distinction,” he said.