Bendon, Adams resign from Community Development
December 3, 2015
The city's Community Development Department got a big jolt this week with the resignation notices of two of its highest ranking officials.
Director Chris Bendon and Historic Preservation Officer Sara Adams informed administrators, City Council members and staff they will be leaving at the end of the year so they can launch a new planning firm: Bendon Adams LLC.
"Our plan is to work through the end of the year, but it's important to make sure the transition is smooth," Bendon said.
Jennifer Phelan, the department's deputy director, will serve as interim director for an indefinite period of time, said City Manager Steve Barwick, noting that he hasn't decided whether he will hire internally or conduct a broader search to replace the two.
He said he'll be seeking applicants who have "strong leadership skills and the ability to think on their feet, have an intelligent speaking ability and can be politically astute and apolitical."
Bendon, 46, joined the Community Development Department as a planner in January 1997. The city hired Adams, 36, in June 2006. Combined, they have nearly three decades of experience in community development.
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They're also following a similar pattern of their predecessors — among them are Stan Clauson, Mitch Haas, Alan Richman and Sunny Vann — who all worked as city planners before entering the private sector.
The jobs aren't for the faint of heart, Barwick said.
"I really appreciate all of the years they've served in these difficult and stressful jobs," Barwick said. "But I wasn't completely surprised by this move. They've had fairly long careers with the city, and most of Aspen's Community Development directors eventually leave."
Bendon and Adams over the years have regularly reported to Aspen City Council with their assessments of land-use applications, some of which have divided the community. But both said that public sentiment over what has been portrayed as unfettered development, which culminated with the Aspen electorate's passage of Referendum 1 in May, didn't influence their decision to leave. The referendum, an amendment to the city's Home Rule Charter, took away the City Council's power to grant commercial projects variances on height, mass, parking and affordable housing without a public vote.
"It really didn't," Bendon said, noting that on average, he has reviewed 150 to 200 land-use applications a year. "It's always been a dynamic environment here, and that's part of what makes this community. We never shied away from a dynamic planning environment, and that's why we're still here. If we weren't able to handle the environment, we wouldn't have made it this long."
Bendon, who oversees a staff of 27, will leave behind an annual salary of just less than $130,000. Adams, who works 34 hours a week, said she has been drawing approximately $67,000 a year.
Both said they recognize they are taking a career leap but now is the time.
"This is a new venture, and we can't predict the future, but we feel good about the way we have approached our positions, and the relationships we have built with the community," Bendon said. "We've always had a very strong business ethic, and I think we've enjoyed a good reputation in the community. Whether people agree with us or not, people have respected the way we have approached our job."
City Hall critic Maurice Emmer is one resident who has expressed frustration with the Community Development Department, which he said has called the shots made by the City Council when it comes to land-use approvals. The complexity of the city's land-use code also requires broad legal knowledge from the Community Development Department director, Emmer said.
"This is an important job, and I think it requires a serious search," he said, adding he plans to collaborate with several residents to draw up what they want in a Community Development Department director.
"I'd like to see someone more trained in land-use law," he said. "This is a technical legal area, and Chris is trained as a city planner. That's an important skill set that has to be married with a really serious knowledge of land-use law. … It's possible that the department should be reorganized so maybe it has a legal component."
Bendon said critics who assume his department has rubber-stamped land-use applications haven't seen what goes on behind the scenes.
"I get it, but I think it discounts the amount of work we do in the trenches with the applicants that the public doesn't see," he said. "Sometimes there are very dramatic changes to projects before they make it out of staff review."
Bendon and Adams noted they have received numerous national awards for their work with the city.