Aspen Club proposal a weighty issue for many in community
ASPEN – When Aspen Club owner Michael Fox appears in front of the City Council this week seeking approval to build 20 timeshare condos and expand the facility into a 55,000-square-foot healthy living retreat, he’ll likely have to break a sweat to quell concerns and quiet critics of the proposal.
As the project advances, supporters and opponents are becoming more vocal about whether the community will benefit from such a facility and if it’s appropriate in a neighborhood zoned rural residential.
Those arguments will be considered Wednesday by four council members during a public hearing on the project. The fifth councilman, Torre, has recused himself from reviewing and voting on the land-use application because he is employed at the Aspen Club as a tennis pro.
Based on public comment from individuals during previous hearings, it appears that support for the project outweighs the opposition. However, critics are beginning to rally through letters to the local newspapers. They’ve also hired an attorney and a PR firm to help further their cause to squash the project.
Jeanette Darnauer, owner of the marketing and public relations firm, the Darnauer Group, said she represents about 22 individuals against the project. Some are full-time residents and others are second-home owners who predominately own property on Ute Avenue and a few from the Stillwater subdivision accessed from Highway 82.
Those same people have hired Aspen attorney Bob Hoover, who has previously spoken on their behalf and will be representing them at Wednesday’s public hearing.
Darnauer said her firm has acted more behind the scenes, making phone calls to residents in the area asking them to join the opposition while educating them on the perceived impacts of the proposed development.
The PR firm also has produced print materials that Darnauer calls “fact sheets” about the project that have been distributed to surrounding households.
She’s also researched the land use code and the Aspen Area Community Plan, which she said both suggest that timeshare units should be in the commercial core to protect the character of neighborhoods.
The Aspen Club and Spa LLC is asking for a zoning variance that Darnauer and Hoover argue shouldn’t be allowed based on the city’s own rules.
“What’s the purpose of the land use code if you don’t follow it?” Darnauer said, adding she and her clients don’t believe the expanded club’s proposed public benefits outweigh the development’s impacts.
“This should be considered a land-use issue,” she said. “Rural residential is more appropriate for this neighborhood.”
While a couple of dozen people have come out against the project, Fox said the support for the proposal is much broader than a handful of people who don’t want any development in their neighborhood, period.
“We are pretty proud of the fact that most of our neighbors are supportive of this,” he said, adding all of the residents in the Aspen Club townhomes across the river from the club have no objections and many of the people who live along Ute Avenue are on board with the project.
Fox has been able to rally his troops – predominately members and employees – to show up in droves at past public hearings in an effort to outnumber the nay sayers.
He said he doesn’t mind people being against the project but when the opposition is based on unfounded fear and misrepresentations, it’s an unfair battle field.
“It points to the weakness of the opposition,” Fox said. “People are afraid of change and they already have their piece of the pie, I get that … but I do mind when people are stretching the truth to stir up fear and doubt with ethically questionable tactics.”
Fox said creating a destination holistic facility that’s funded by the sale of the timeshare condos is the best way to ensure the club’s long-term sustainability. Otherwise, he said he may be forced to sell off the land in separate real estate pieces that would be developed into free-market homes, which current zoning allows.
He said he wants to avoid that and instead create what’s been dubbed “Aspen Club Living.” The vision for the new facility is for families to come for an extended health retreat. When the timeshare units aren’t being used by owners they will be available for groups, families and single travelers who participate in special one- and two-week healthy lifestyle programs.
When not used by the facility’s participants, the timeshare condos would be put into the general lodging pool for nightly rentals.
Some council members, including Mayor Mick Ireland, have suggested that the proposition of building single-family homes in place of the club if the proposal isn’t approved is unfair and puts them in a position of “shooting the puppy.”
Fox said that’s not the intent but the reality is the community ought to have a world-class health facility and that requires a new financial mechanism to support it.
“Why spend 20 years doing something mediocre?” he said. “I want to do something great and timeshares are what make sense …
“We have an opportunity to do something really cool here and put Aspen on the map for health and performance,” Fox added. “We want to create a whole other reason to come to Aspen.”
The private club is seeking to subdivide the property between Ute Avenue and Highway 82 to accommodate 14 townhomes and six condos, as well as 12 affordable housing units.
The townhomes would be divided into four separate two-story structures, consisting of three- and four-bedroom units that range in size from 2,310 square feet to 2,740 square feet. Three of the buildings would be located where the tennis courts sit, on what’s called the “lower bench.”
The six condos are three- and two-bedroom units that would be added to the existing facility, and range from 1,670 square feet to 2,150 square feet.
All 20 of the units would be sold in one-eighth interests, with a total of 160 owners.
The proposal calls for 132 parking spaces – a net increase of 41 spaces. Spaces would be accommodated on a surface lot and in an underground parking garage.
Even though there is more parking, the club’s development team proposes to keep the same number of car trips on Ute Avenue as today, which is about 860 daily.
There has been minimal discussion of the proposed traffic plan, which has been vetted by the city’s transportation plan.
Fox said he thinks there hasn’t been a lot of focus on the transportation plan because he’s been told by city officials that it’s one of the best they’ve seen.
The traffic impacts of the proposed development is one of the changes that have been made since Fox first proposed the development in 2006, which was withdrawn for lack of support by a previous City Council.
Fox noted that current council members and officials in the community development department have made the project better in many regards. He added that he’s spent more $1 million on planning the project since 2006.
“They pushed us … they beat the crap out of us,” he said of city officials examining the development proposal. “To their credit, they forced us to go back and make it better, and ask ‘how do you protect the community and make us accountable?'”
The council has been reviewing the project for more than a year and gave it conceptual approval last summer.
Then in February, the council told Fox he must give the community assurances that the health club will remain accessible and affordable to local residents if the project is approved.
The council also wants to ensure that the public benefits attached to the project will be secured in a completion bond, in the event that financing vanishes and the development project is abandoned.
In response, Fox, the managing partner in the corporation backed by a host of investors, has presented a list of concessions he and his business partners are willing to give up in return for approval.
Aspen Club and Spa LLC has proposed language in the ordinance that requires at least 50 percent of the club’s members be local residents. If the club falls out of compliance for two years in a row, which can be checked through an annual audit, Fox proposes to give all full-time city of Aspen employees a free membership to the club.
To address the commitment level to reinvest in the club, the amended ordinance would require that a minimum of $5 million be put back into the facility and the certificate of occupancy wouldn’t be issued from the city’s building department until it’s been proven.
The applicant will provide a completion bond that can be reviewed by the city attorney and the building department to ensure that there’s sufficient funding to complete the project. A building permit wouldn’t be issued until the bond is approved by the city attorney, according to Fox’s latest proposal outlined in a memo to the council.
City Attorney John Worcester has proposed that a reclamation bond also be required. But Fox said it would be redundant with a completion bond, and cost an additional half million dollars.
“We’re going to prove that we can finish the project through our financing, a bonded contractor and a completion bond … it’s the first time anyone has done any of this,” Fox said. “None of that is cheap.”
To ensure that the project meets the stated energy efficiency goals, Aspen Club and Spa LLC has agreed to yearly reports and audits for five years once a certificate of occupancy is issued. If it’s found by city officials that the club has fallen short of its goals, it would be required to put $100,000 into an escrow account that would be used for on-site systems to improve energy efficiency.
Wednesday’s public hearing will begin at 5 p.m. in council chambers in the basement of City Hall.
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