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Aspen Fire’s housing project advances despite issues

The Aspen Volunteer Fire Department building on Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

A proposed affordable housing project near Aspen for volunteer firefighters doesn’t conform to the surrounding neighborhood or a master plan for the area, members of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission decided late Tuesday night.

However, a majority of members voted to recommend the project to county commissioners, citing the desperate need for affordable housing in the Aspen area.

“There’s no question it is not in compliance (with the master plan),” said P&Z Commissioner James VeShancey. “But for certain projects, we make exceptions.”

The 4-2 vote late Tuesday came after near-unanimous opposition from residents of the neighboring North Forty subdivision, many of whom claimed that Aspen Fire Protection District officials ignored their concerns.

“The fire department can do whatever they want, however they want without any (land-use) code at all,” said Lauren Maytin, a North Forty resident. “The lack of care for the safety for the neighborhood is sad. This is housing at the expense of all else.”

For their part, Aspen Fire Protection District officials said they tried to appease the neighborhood by redesigning the project, slightly lowering the density, including more open space and adding an underground parking garage. They finally drew the line, though, when North Forty developer John McBride, who initially supported the project and then backed off, offered to sell them another piece of land in exchange for his support, said project planner Chris Bendon.

“We declined,” Bendon said. “He’s made the same offer to (Colorado Mountain College).”

McBride did not return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment, though a neighbor who spoke later called Bendon’s remark a “slur” against the developer, and said McBride wanted to sell the property in an effort to reduce the fire project’s density.

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine and Aspen Fire Protection Board Chairman John Ward said they took the North Forty neighborhood needs into account, but also emphasized that the lack of affordable firefighter housing in the Aspen area is detrimental to the future of the department.

“I feel we’ve been responsible to address the needs of the neighborhood,” Balentine said. “We need housing.”

Said Ward, “We’re looking to ensure the long-term future of the district.”

The fire department wants to spend $17 million to build 17 units next to its North Forty substation across Highway 82 from the Aspen airport. The breakdown includes one studio, two one-bedroom units, six two bedroom units, seven three-bedroom units and one nearly 1,800 square-foot single-family home.

The average unit size will be 1,320 square feet and all will be rentals. The project also will include a 20,000-square-foot, 34-space underground parking garage.

State statute and the local land-use code allow the Planning and Zoning Commission to review the project under a process known as “location and extent.” However, state statute also allows a governmental entity like the Fire Department to accept that review on an “advisory basis,” meaning that Tuesday’s vote denying that review can be overruled by the fire department’s board of directors.

But Pitkin County’s planning staff also determined the project is in a so-called “area of state interest,” meaning it is near an airport, an interchange with a highway and mass transit stations. The location requires the county to issue a permit for the project, according to a memo from senior planner Leslie Lamont.

According to the land-use code, that means the project must conform to the height and density standards outlined in the West of Maroon Creek Master Plan, Lamont said. The maximum height for the project, therefore, would be 28 feet.

As proposed, the project is 32 feet tall, with an additional 7 feet, 6 inches of solar panels atop the roof, according to Lamont’s memo.

The housing project’s density, or total square footage, is on par with some parts of the North Forty subdivision, though it is larger than the land-use code allows. If the underground garage is included, the project’s density is much larger than the code allows, the memo states.

Bendon reiterated Tuesday that the project isn’t subject to local zoning, though he acknowledged that the master plan applies. Still, he disputed Lamont’s findings and said the project meets the master plan requirements.

“We are subject to the master plan and we think we conform,” Bendon said.

North Forty neighbors, however, did not share that point of view.

Many were like Kirk Hinderberger, who objected to the height and density, but also urged Planning and Zoning commissioners to take into account three other large projects that will impact the neighborhood in the near future. Those include the Aspen airport expansion, Colorado Mountain College’s plans to expand its nearby campus and build resident housing and the city of Aspen’s Lumberyard housing project.

“This is not being developed in a vacuum,” Hinderberger said. “Think about these other projects.”

In voting to recommend a permit for the project, Commissioners Chelsea Clark and Monty Thompson noted the importance of volunteer firefighters to the community as well as the scarcity of affordable housing in the Aspen area.

“I don’t think you can satisfy everyone in the room,” Clark said. “I sense that the applicant is trying to strike a balance … to provide employee housing.”

The upshot of Tuesday’s vote — which occurred just after 9 p.m., nearly four hours after the meeting started — puts the onus on the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, who are scheduled to address the project July 8. If commissioners decide not to issue a permit for the project, it was not clear Wednesday whether the project could go forward.

Neither Neiley nor Pitkin County Attorney John Ely returned a phone message Wednesday seeking clarification on that point.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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