Aspen City Council punts on variance controls
The Aspen Times
Though the Aspen City Council tabled the discussion on variance controls without an official decision Monday, council members seemed to agree that public voting on individual development applications would be poor governing.
The code amendment that council discussed Monday, Ordinance 9, would cap variances at 2 feet above allowable height and 5 percent above allowable floor area. Any council-granted variance beyond those caps would trigger a public vote.
The amendment is a direct response to Aspen attorney Bert Myrin’s “Keep Aspen, Aspen” campaign. He has successfully advanced a ballot question to the May 5 election that seeks to strip the council of its ability to grant variances on floor area, height, parking and affordable housing without a public vote.
“I think the public vote is problematic,” Skadron said. “I think it’s contrary to the principles of representative Democracy.”
However, the mayor said he initially went into Monday’s meeting with the mindset that he could support an altered version of Ordinance 9, an option planners presented that’s in line with Myrin’s Home Rule Charter amendment. That option would require a public vote on any variance increase.
“That’s the direction I was going to argue for,” he said. “It would be a strategic move for political purposes on my part, but I don’t think that would be the right thing for the community.”
Councilman Adam Frisch said he was ready to vote “no” on Ordinance 9 as proposed because it doesn’t jive with his core values. He pointed out that the public already has the ability to referendum council-approved projects.
He also claimed the current council has done a good job representing a variety of different viewpoints. He expressed skepticism that the general public will be able to, or even want to, digest 500- to 700-page development applicants. He equated a public vote on variances to mobocracy.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins also initially leaned toward voting “no” on Ordinance 9, stating that it exposes Aspen to misinformation campaigns through public voting. Like Frisch, she said she doesn’t expect the public to take the time needed to make informed decisions on development applications. Finally, she had issues with placing caps on variances, alluding to the issue of “upzoning,” where every developer requests the cap limit.
Councilman Dwayne Romero called Ordinance 9 “a good-faith gesture,” a signal that officials are listening to the public. After fielding public comment, he suggested the council continue the discussion to next week.
Councilman Art Daily said it’s understood that Ordinance 9 was reactionary, and because of that, he was in no hurry to vote on the amendment. During the public comment portion of the meeting, former Mayor Bill Stirling asked the council to shoot the ordinance down, saying it makes a mockery of representative Democracy.
“I agree with Bill,” Daily said. “Maybe we’re tying our hands too tightly.”
Former Councilman Torre, who is contesting Skadron for the mayor’s seat, said Ordinance 9 is “upzoning.” He said variances used to be granted in order to create public benefit, but now, they are bargaining tactics used by developers to make projects “pencil out.”
Skadron stood by the actions of the council, pointing to the recent lodge applications — the Sky Hotel and Mark Hunt’s Base1 — that have been approved without variances.
“This council has achieved, I believe, the very the success the petitioners seek, whether they like it not,” Skadron said. “Draconian changes to the charter around growth do not move us closer to satisfying the (Aspen Area Community Plan) principles.”
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