Aspen’s zoning watchdog steps down |

Aspen’s zoning watchdog steps down

If you’ve put a neon sign in your window or a fence in your yard that doesn’t pass muster, chances are, Sarah Oates paid you a visit.

For close to eight years, Oates has been Aspen’s zoning enforcement officer, charged with protecting the city from occasional attempts to get a little splashier than Aspen’s rules allow.

Plastering a storefront window with day-glo orange going-out-of-business signs, for example, is a no-no.

On Friday, the Aspen native served her last day as Aspen’s consummate diplomat ” the city staffer who politely, but firmly, tells residents to turn it off, take it in or tear it down.

“You have to do good customer service, but not with the mentality that the customer is always right, because they’re not,” Oates explained.

When the snazzy Intrawest sales office opened in what had been the Aspen Drug locale, with a neon sign shining through the big front window, Oates instructed the staff to unplug the offending piece of the carefully coordinated decor.

When young men renting a decrepit West End house built a colorful fence out of old skis across the front yard, Oates ordered them to remove it. Oddly, had the skis been older, the fence might have conformed to Aspen’s requirement that they be constructed of wood, wrought iron or masonry.

“Yeah, they would have passed muster if it had been made out of wood,” Oates noted wryly. “That’s the hard thing, when you’ve got to do something ” making them take it down ” when it’s kind of neat and adds to the character of town.”

Rarely has Oates had to cite anyone and haul that person into municipal court. When she issues a citation, folks generally comply, and the case is dropped. But once, Oates recalled, a individual responded to her visit by calling her father, local attorney Leonard Oates, to complain.

“My dad said, ‘Take it up with my daughter.'”

Her favorite zoning tale, however, occurred before her tenure. As legend has it, a resident complained that a neighbor had built a shed too close to the lot line. When the neighbor bent over to get something out of the structure, his derriere hung over the property line because the shed was so close.

It’s still referred to as the “butt encroachment” case.

“That’s zoning enforcement folklore,” Oates said.

It’s history, not zoning, that is Oates’ true passion, though. The part-time curator of collections for the Aspen Historical Society will now take on that role as a full-time job, though she’s also contemplating law school.

Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is

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