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Aspen toughens height limits on downtown developments

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – In a move likely to send shock waves through the local real estate and development community, the Aspen City Council voted 3-1 Monday to limit building heights of future projects in the downtown area to 28 feet.

Mayor Mick Ireland proposed the new limit during a scheduled special meeting to address the city’s land-use code. The limit temporarily bars three-story projects until the council decides on potential exceptions such as new lodging facilities. Ireland said he worked all weekend on amendments that would supplant the Community Development Department’s ordinance that proposed a 4-foot reduction in building heights – from 42 to 38 feet in the Commercial Core District and from 40 feet to 36 feet in the adjacent Commercial, or C-1, District.

Ireland’s action – which seeks to reverse the heart of so-called “infill” regulations that were designed a decade ago to stimulate growth in the city – was supported by Councilmen Torre and Steve Skadron. Derek Johnson voted against it, while Adam Frisch was absent.



Last week, council members were expected to wait until Frisch returned from a previously scheduled vacation before voting on the matter, but Ireland decided to move quickly in order to stem the flow of potentially undesirable development applications into City Hall. Johnson and Frisch were in favor of making some changes to the land-use code, but not to the extent of their council cohorts. City staffers said a handful of major project applications have been filed in the past few weeks by developers sensing change and wanting their plans to be based on the old rules.

With Torre and Skadron voicing support for major changes in recent months, Ireland had the three votes he needed to pass his initiative. Their goal is to stop a recent trend of three-story projects fueled by speculative luxury residences on the top floor. Torre proposed an emergency ordinance last month that sought to bring down maximum building heights to a range of 28 and 32 feet, but it lacked the four votes needed for passage. Ireland’s proposal was not part of an emergency ordinance and only needed three votes.



Technically, proposals such as the East Hyman Avenue mixed-use building near Little Annie’s restaurant, which the council approved earlier this year, have met land-use code requirements. But they have been roundly criticized by residents opposed to the proliferation of taller and larger structures that block mountain views and sunlight.

The East Hyman proposal, which includes a penthouse, also has led Ireland to decry what he describes as “gun and puppy” politics utilized by developers. In those instances, project applicants threaten to take away something the community holds dear – such as Little Annie’s – unless a lucrative development concession is granted.

Johnson appeared wary of Ireland’s plan from the start of the meeting to its finish.

“Mick, I do appreciate the sense of urgency you feel and the passion over the applications you see coming in, but I do feel like this is a bit of a mini-mini-mini-emergency ordinance we’re trying to work through,” Johnson said.

Ireland emailed copies of his proposed amendments to council members and the media late Sunday night. He said it would stop development of single-family and duplex projects within the commercial districts.

“Although penthouses are not specifically eliminated, the 28-foot height limit should address that issue by eliminating the incentive to buy existing structures and replace them with three-story buildings that are essentially ‘stilts’ underneath the penthouse development,” he wrote.

Just before vote, the mayor said the restriction was more in keeping with the community’s desire to retain its small-town character, a value that was expressed repeatedly during four years of citizen surveys, group meetings and public hearings that shaped the recently adopted Aspen Area Community Plan.

“Everybody running for council (last spring) – everybody – said they wanted to maintain small-town character,” Ireland said. “Small-town character is not 40-foot buildings topped by $20 million penthouses. A penthouse on every roof is not small-town character.”

During a public hearing on the issue, opinions on Ireland’s changes were mixed. About eight residents spoke in favor of his ordinance rewrite while about five members of the business community, some prominent, criticized it.

Dave Corbin, vice president of planning and development for Aspen Skiing Co., urged the council to go along with the recommended staff ordinance in lieu of Ireland’s amended measure.

“I think our primary concern here is one of process, and we’re somewhat anxious about the approach that’s being taken right now,” he said.

Corbin reminded council members of the community plan’s stated action steps that call for detailed analyses of the city’s competitive advantages and disadvantages; studies that update the lodging inventory and the hotel industry’s future needs; and the use of 3-D modeling technology to determine ways in which the city can best maximize growth.

“Those steps haven’t been taken yet,” Corbin said. “We recognize and understand that council has been perhaps frustrated by applications that have come before it in the past few months and maybe those that are coming forward now. That said, we would hope that the council takes a very deliberate and well-reasoned approach to looking at heights within the city, and we’re afraid that as a result of a couple of applications, what is happening is a somewhat arbitrary response.”

Corbin said the staff’s proposal was “understandable code” but that Ireland’s rewrite was not as clear.

“I have to say, Mick, I don’t understand your proposed amendments,” Corbin said. “I’m concerned that we really haven’t thought them through very well yet or really understand them. I would hate to rush to adopt for fear of some other series of land-use applications that may be on the table or coming when we don’t understand the code language that’s proposed. It seems as though what’s being proposed is to write law – to, in the future, write law.”

Ireland appeared to take offense to the comments.

“I think they’re crystal clear,” he said of his amendments. “I’m not here to be cross-examined.”

Former Mayor Helen Klanderud, who was mayor when the “infill” legislation was passed some 10 years ago, also spoke against the 28-foot limit. She said proper legislative procedures were being bypassed and that Ireland’s amendments amounted to a “moratorium” on development.

“This is a radical departure from what we currently have,” she said, “and there are five members of council, and one of them is missing. And I think it’s a significant enough change to the land-use code that there ought to be all five of you here.”

But Torre, who was a council member when “infill” was passed, said he might have made a mistake in supporting it a decade ago.

“We spent an amazing amount of time – hours, meetings, trips – studying this issue,” he said. “We tried very hard to do things to better Aspen, create vitality and give people better opportunities.

“You know, I think we made some mistakes. And all I see this as is a chance to maybe get it right.”

Council members promised to revisit the height discussion during next Monday’s regular meeting, which Frisch is expected to attend. Frisch emailed the council early Monday with his thoughts on the matter but listed his preference for maximum heights in the range of 33.5 to 37 feet for three-story buildings and 28 feet for two-story buildings.

asalvail@aspentimes.com


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