City Council denies variance request from Aspen builder
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday unanimously denied a developer’s request for a height variance on a recently built house that doesn’t conform to city zoning regulations.
The house at 861 Ute Ave., owned by Laguna Sierra LLC, rises to 26 feet, 2 inches in one spot and 28 feet, 3 inches in another when measured from the sunken patio in the backyard. Zoning rules for the property call for a limit of 25 feet above grade.
Builder John Olson argued that he didn’t build the structure too tall. He said that during construction the grade changed because of the sunken patio. He also took issue with Community Development Director Chris Bendon’s assessment of the events that led to the problem as well as a Monday story in The Aspen Times that quoted city documents in previewing the discussion.
“It’s not a ‘height limit’ variance,” Olson said. “It’s more of an ‘exposed area of the building’ variance. … I had a very bad day about this, as you guys can imagine, because I don’t build stuff that’s too tall.”
But at Monday’s meeting and in a memorandum to council members, Bendon spelled out the concern that employees of the Community Development and Building departments have expressed since the beginning of the year about the height of the rear façade of the building – and whether it met the dimensions as outlined in the city’s building permit.
Bendon recommended that the request for a height variance be denied.
“The city’s criteria for height variances are very strict. It would have to be a situation in which there is clearly no other option for the applicant,” he said. “It also can’t be a self-created situation, and I think they were either aware or could have been aware of the situation as it was unfolding.”
His memo states that the problem could have been avoided and that “the record seems to reflect some applicant knowledge and potentially an attempt to cover up the situation.” But during the meeting, Bendon said he wanted to move forward with solutions without assigning blame, and he added that all of the individuals involved with the project are good people.
“Our recommendation of denial is purely a business or professional recommendation. It has nothing to do with the people involved. Regardless of the outcome tonight, I’m sure we’ll all be able to continue to work together,” he said.
Councilman Adam Frisch asked if city staff made any mistakes in the matter.
“I don’t think staff made a mistake,” Bendon said. “The plans, as approved, demonstrated compliance.”
Several times along the course of construction, Bendon said, city employees investigated the matter and were told by various parties involved with the project that the specifications outlined in the city’s building permit were being met.
“When they responded to questions about the height, they responded with new drawings that demonstrated height compliance. When we realized that was not happening on the site, that’s when we kind of rang the bell and said you either need to comply, or seek a variance, or something – but you have a decision to make here.”
Olson said he was “damaged” by the newspaper story that focused on the issue.
“I got a lot of texts, a few emails, bumped into a few guys on the street, and everybody said, ‘Why would you build a house taller than you’re allowed to build the house?’ “
He flipped through several pages of blueprints and designs during the meeting, and said that only on one page was there mention of the permitted building height: 24 feet, 11.5 inches.
“Everything else, all the structurals that we build to, which are so critical, are all exactly what’s on the site,” Olson said. “There was a mix-up here. I don’t even want to say anybody did anything wrong. But it is in an area of the city where nobody’s ever going to see what went on.”
Olson said there was no architect or construction administrator assisting the project and that his contract with the property owner didn’t call for one. He said the project has had multiple architects over the years.
He disputed Bendon’s contention that the council would set a bad precedent by allowing the variance.
“Nothing ever went up. Something came down a foot further than anybody knew about, apparently. There is no variance request for what we need,” Olson said.
Olson added that he spoke with City Attorney Jim True about the matter. “I said, ‘This is not really (about) a height variance.’ And he said, ‘No, but there’s no other thing to really call it.”
After the vote, Mayor Mick Ireland said that in refusing to allow the variance, the council was not saying that anyone involved in the project was trying to deceive the city. He added that he believed that city employees were being honest in their assessment of the situation.
Ireland and other council members directed city staffers to work with the development team to explore options of bringing the project within code.
The City Council approved a code amendment that will allow the Utilities Department to raise water rates in the event of a declared drought and water shortage.
A previous ordinance gave the city the authority to raise water rates to a certain level in the event of a drought; however, those rates were lower than existing rates.
Utilities Operations Manager Lee Ledesma wrote in a memorandum that as of May 1, year-to-date precipitation and snowpack levels matched those of the same date in 2002, when the council declared a drought and enacted temporarily higher water rates to encourage conservation.
Water-utility customers will be mailed a brochure with conservation tips along with next month’s bill, she told council members on Monday.
“We are also going to be contacting our 100 highest water users,” she said. “They represent about 25 percent of our overall use.”
The city soon will be asking customers, and city agencies such as the Parks Department, to begin voluntary water-reduction measures.
“We already know it’s going to be a drought,” Ledesma said. “We just don’t know how severe. … We can start doing things now.”
Council members also approved a code amendment that will allow the city to install a waste-composting system at a new restroom building being planned for Rio Grande Park.
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