Aspen variance control a potential key election issue

Karl Herchenroeder
The Aspen Times

It’s only January, but a potential key election issue is already shaping up in Aspen for May.

A group led by political activists Bert Myrin and Mick Ireland, among others, is pushing a ballot referendum that, if passed, would strip the Aspen City Council of its ability to grant variances to developers.

Myrin has taken issue with the way city officials handle variance requests on floor area, mass, scale, height, affordable-housing mitigation and parking requirements. His preference is to subject all variance requests beyond 5 percent of what is allowed to a public vote.

Ireland argued Friday that variance approvals on mass, scale and height fuel real estate speculation. For example, he said a property worth $8 million might sell for $12 million based on the assumption that the council will grant variances. The overpaying buyer then has greater excuse on why the redevelopment project doesn’t pencil out financially without waivers, variances and large, free-market residential units. He said that by removing the council’s ability to grant variances, the city is implementing a universal solution that appeals to the bigger picture rather than a case-by-case basis.

The referendum effort is similar to a recent movement in Telluride, where a citizen petition drive began over fears that big development threatened the town’s character. In November, the Telluride Town Council adopted a citizen petition and stripped itself the right to grant general waivers to developers.

Councilman Adam Frisch argued Friday that most people would agree that elected officials should decide land-use applications. Others in the community, he said, believe that no matter who is elected, Aspen ends up with unfavorable results. Therefore, the power of review should be taken out of the hands of officials and made subject to strict interpretation of the code.

“It goes from Democracy to mob-ocracy,” Frisch said.

He added that in such a scenario, the town can get rid of the council and revert to a resident vote using 6,000 electronic-voting clickers every time there’s a redevelopment application. He also made the argument that residents already have final say with the ability to refer projects to a public vote.

Frisch called the issue a major one, and cautioned against rushing a charter amendment through election. He suggested the city meet with Myrin’s group and have a “rational discussion.”

“Listen, if it’s going to come up in front of us, we might as well try to get ahead of it and have a rational discussion and try to figure out the best way to go about doing it,” he said.

Mayor Steve Skadron, an official with a reputation for being tough on development, said Myrin’s proposal would help him to avoid having the same repeated land-use debate at the council table. However, he said he doesn’t want Aspen to become frozen.

“If it is so restrictive and punitive to the community’s long-term interests, it is something that I would have reservations about,” he said, adding that he’ll wait to see exactly what’s being proposed.

Skadron agreed that a discussion between the city and the activist group could be useful. If the group continues its effort, it has two options: Either ask the council to refer the issue to voters or solicit signatures through a petition drive.