Aspen homeowner disputes angry Pitkin County board’s 20-year tree condition

A Red Mountain homeowner allegedly cut the tops off of 127 cottonwood trees last year to obtain a more optimal view. Pitkin County commissioners imposed a 20-year monitoring period for the trees that it wants replanted, though the homeowner is disputing the condition.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Members of the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners were angry.

A Red Mountain homeowner had lopped the tops off 127 trees on his property a year ago without permission from the county, allegedly to improve his view. And, to make it worse, he did it after the county previously denied him permission to remove trees on more than one occasion, an official said.

“It infuriates me that someone would go in there and whack 127 trees just so they would have a better view plane,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said at the board’s meeting Sept. 14. “I think it’s so blatant.”

Commissioner Michael Owsley went even further.

“It looks like a photograph of the Ardennes after the battle,” he said. “It is an outrage.”

With that outrage lodged between his cheek and gum, Owsley proposed a novel punishment for homeowner Andrew Lessman: Not only would he have to replant the hillside, he would have to monitor those plantings for the next 20 years to make sure they survive and submit progress reports about them to the county twice a year until 2037.

“That may sound extreme, but no more extreme than what these owners did,” Owsley told his colleagues. “I’d like to send a message that if you alter the landscape without permission, you will be responsible for that landscape restitution for 20 years. You make the choice.”

The rest of the board unanimously supported the proposal. Commissioner Rachel Richards even suggested the 20-year monitoring should become part of the property’s deed so that if the property is sold during that time, the next owner would have to deal with the condition as well.

“If that diminishes the resale value, the new owner will take advantage of that,” she said.

Two weeks later on Sept. 28, however, Lessman and his lawyer appeared before the commissioners and asked them to reconsider the condition. Attorney Chris Bryan said he was concerned that commissioners didn’t receive all the facts Sept. 14, and that it was not a case of “wholesale tree removal.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to reconsider the 20-year condition Nov. 2.

But on Tuesday, Lessman filed a lawsuit in Aspen District Court against the board, alleging commissioners abused their discretion and that the 20-year condition is illegal.

Bryan said Tuesday that the lawsuit is more like an insurance policy at this point and had to be filed within 28 days of the Sept. 14 approval of the 20-year condition.

“We have every expectation this will be taken care of on Nov. 2,” Bryan said, adding that Lessman would withdraw the lawsuit if the condition is withdrawn.

If commissioners decide to keep the condition in place, the lawsuit would proceed, he said.

The situation first came to light in October 2015, when the county red-tagged Lessman’s home at 76 Placer Lane on Red Mountain after complaints by residents, said Suzanne Wolff, assistant community development director. The 10 bedroom, 12.5 bathroom home sits on 1.7 acres and is valued at $20.3 million, according to county property records.

According to Lessman’s lawsuit, he “contracted with a tree care company to have pruning and maintenance activities performed on certain trees on the property.”

Tami Kochen, a community development planner, said Lessman had come to the county several times previously asking for permits to remove tree, but had been denied.

“So this was, I think, his response (to the denial),” Kochen said Sept. 14.

The county will charge Lessman double for the permit to mitigate the damage, but that was all the punishment it could hand out, Wolff said.

Clapper wanted to know if the board could punish the contractor who performed the work. But the work was done by an unlicensed contractor from Grand Junction so that wasn’t possible, Wolff and Kochen said. A local company initially asked about the work, but the community development office told them they couldn’t do it, Kochen said.

“They couldn’t get the work done (by the local company) so they got someone to do illegal work for them,” Clapper said Sept. 14.

Jason Jones, a local arborist, said the company didn’t do a very good job either.

“The work was done pretty sloppily,” he said. “The trees were just dropped and there was some damage to the ground cover.”

Ryan Vugteveen, a local landscape architect who studied the site, said the mitigation plan calls for replanting the slope with elder, aspen and Colorado spruce trees rather than with cottonwoods. That did not sit well with Clapper, who said those trees were slow-growing and not tall enough to replace the large cottonwoods.

“My preference would be for something fast-growing that will create another blockage of their view plane,” she said. “We’re only furthering their own intent and giving them what they want (with the shorter trees).”

Gavin Brook, a neighbor of the Lessman property, appeared at the Sept. 14 meeting and encouraged commissioners to do something about the tree cutting.

“It’s pretty bad right now,” Brook said.

Lessman is the founder and owner of ProCaps Laboratories, a vitamin supplement manufacturer and distributor.