Aspen City Council record debated at town hall event
The Aspen Times
Faced with a May ballot initiative that seeks to limit its discretion over land-use approvals, Aspen City Council members have defended their record recently, stating that they are negotiating the type of development the community seeks.
On Tuesday, during a town hall discussion at Belly Up Aspen, Councilwoman Ann Mullins cited four projects within the past year — Hotel Aspen, Molly Gibson Lodge, Base1 and Sky Hotel — that “have been approved with no variances.” Mayor Steve Skadron has made similar comments, arguing that each approval essentially came without variances.
After fielding pushback from neighbors and the council, Sky Hotel representatives withdrew a 5-foot variance request on height before winning unanimous council approval for its 40-foot-tall, 91,000-square-foot redevelopment project. The proposal fully conforms to code.
Developer Mark Hunt’s Base1 lodge concept on Cooper Avenue also won unanimous council approval, but it included leeway on parking requirements. Rather than provide 24 on-site parking spaces, Hunt reached an agreement to lease 15 spots from the St. Regis Aspen Resort for five years. Prior to approval, Hunt dropped a number of variance requests involving height and impact-fee waivers.
Another project winning unanimous approval was the Molly Gibson Lodge, which included council-granted variances on allowable floor area. Two single-family homes included in the project account for 8,000 square feet, where 4,080 square feet is allowed in the residential-6 zone. For the Main Street portion of the structure, the council granted a cumulative floor-area variance, with 26,959 square feet approved and 22,500 allowed. On lodge floor area, 26,300 square feet is approved and 18,000 square feet are allowed.
Hotel Aspen won height-limited approval in a 3-1 vote in March 2014, with Skadron dissenting and Mullins recused. A week before approval, Hotel Aspen had proposed to build two free-market residential units at 35 feet 6 inches and one at 33 feet. After Councilman Art Daily requested the applicant knock the height down to about 25 feet and within code, the hotel owners complied but were granted variance requests of floor area. The maximum cumulative floor area was measured at 35,050 square feet, which is about 8,000 square feet more than what is allowed.
On Wednesday, former Mayor Mick Ireland, a proponent for the “Keep Aspen, Aspen” campaign, who is running for council in May, argued that the current land-use approval process makes it too easy to gloss over the facts. He asked the speaker panel if granting variances on a consistent basis encourages real estate speculation. In the past, he has argued that it fuels developers’ claims that they can’t make their projects work financially without variances.
Mullins addressed each application she voted on. With the Molly Gibson, she said one could argue the applicant proposed less floor area than they potentially could have, as multiple zone districts could have been applied to the project.
“You can look at that one two ways,” she said. “But there was no height variation, no affordable-housing waivers, and floor area you can debate.”
For Base1, Mullins called Hunt’s parking plan innovative, saying the council “is trying to keep cars out of town.”
The “Keep Aspen, Aspen” campaign, which will appear as Referendum 1 on May’s ballot, would strip the council’s ability to grant variances on height, mass, affordable housing and parking without a public vote. The council has responded to that effort with Ordinance 9, which caps variances requests at 2 feet on height and 5 percent on floor area and removes the ability to reduce affordable-housing mitigation. The ordinance does not trigger a public vote associated with any requests.
Land-use attorney Marcella Larsen, a proponent for Referendum 1 speaking on the panel, said Ordinance 9 is not adequate, equating it to “ad-hoc decisionmaking.”
“It continues to perpetuate the same flawed decisionmaking process, which is an ad-hoc way of legislating,” she said.
Former Councilman Michael Behrendt said the council has been listening, but what it hears is the development community instead of the “thousands of people” who want more affordable housing, parking and view planes.
Arguing for the other side were former Mayor Bill Stirling and Mullins. Stirling said that over the course of his time in Aspen, variances have been granted carefully and sparingly.
“I’ve never seen them given as gifts,” Stirling said, adding that variances can actually add to town character.
Mullins argued that the greatest loss with Referendum 1 would be public discourse at City Hall. Meetings go into the early morning, she said, but the discussions lead to better projects. Larsen shot back that many residents would be grateful if they didn’t have to sit in council chambers until 1 a.m.
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