City gets earful on infill
Aspen Times Staff Writer
A packed room of citizens voiced mostly objections to Aspen’s proposed infill legislation Monday after City Council members refused to delay the first official hearing on the proposals until after the spring election.
Before continuing the hearing to their April 28 meeting, though, some council members conceded they share many of the public’s concerns and indicated they wouldn’t adopt the package of zoning amendments without making some changes.
Councilman Tim Semrau urged the council to move forward with last night’s hearing and suggested the city could make tweaks to the ordinance that would address many of the community’s concerns.
“I personally couldn’t vote for it now,” he said. “The version of it we have today, I find unacceptable.”
The infill legislation, which has been the focus of study and review for nearly three years, offers sweeping changes to the city’s land-use code to foster new development and redevelopment.
Among its goals are making lodge redevelopment easier, easing the way for new buildings in the downtown core that contain a mix of housing and commercial uses, and preventing more homes in areas zoned for other purposes. It also eliminates the restrictions in the current code that often make development financially impossible for a property owner.
But infill’s vision of greater density and taller buildings struck fear into a number of residents in the room.
Council candidate Tom Peirce predicted increased growth and “monolithic buildings” that block views and shade the streets.
“This is not what I want. I’m not sure it’s what our visitors want,” he said. “I’m completely opposed to paving the way for a wholesale makeover to the town of Aspen.”
Aspen’s established cap on growth – 2 percent annually – is unaltered by the infill proposal, Semrau countered. The councilman noted Aspen has actually seen a growth rate of about 1 percent a year recently and said he’d be willing to cap growth at 1 percent.
“This is not about growth … it is absolutely about directing any growth we have in a way that benefits the town,” Semrau said. “I don’t want runaway growth in this town. I don’t think anyone does.”
Longtime resident Connie Harvey questioned the premise that infill will focus development in town rather than sprawling outward. That goal is unrealistic since the legislation contains no restrictions on continued sprawl, she argued.
“This quick fix is really a disaster in the making,” she said, echoing the comments of many who wondered how infill would revitalize Aspen.
“I love this town and I don’t want to see this happen,” said local attorney Doug Allen. “This started out with increased vitality and has become increased growth. That’s what we’re talking about.”
“What I think is key is that we don’t kill the golden goose,” said Harley Baldwin, a downtown building owner. “We have the greatest small town in the world. It’s a fantastic place. We are in the middle of a national malaise. It’s not solvable solely by us.”
Aspen’s recent economic downturn is due in large part to forces beyond its control, agreed former Mayor Bill Stirling, rattling off a list that included the weather, high rents, Aspen’s affordability to tourists and the national economy.
“I don’t understand how the plan will prevent sprawl or make the downtown more attractive or more vital,” he said.
Infill’s proponents have touted its potential to revitalize Aspen by creating new commercial space and bringing residents back into the core in new mixed-use buildings that include worker housing.
That, however, was not the original goal of infill, noted bike shop owner Charlie Tarver, who co-chaired an Infill Advisory Group that spent 18 months studying the concept and coming up with proposals.
The group took existing community goals, spelled out in the Aspen Area Community Plan, and figured out how to make them a reality by amending Aspen’s land-use regulations, he explained.
The proposals go a long way toward fixing the stranglehold Aspen’s land-use code puts on development, said attorney Garret Brandt, representing the owner of a downtown parking lot that has been left undeveloped. The city’s exactions make it impossible, he said.
Brandt expressed doubt that infill will destroy Aspen’s character, but he suggested doing nothing will lead to the core’s continued, gradual decline.
The infill proposals, already a controversial topic in the community, have become even more so in the politically charged climate of an election season, prompting Mayor Helen Klanderud’s call to put off the hearing until after the spring election.
Stirling had previously urged the council to postpone infill, as well.
“I think its tied in with a lot of other political issues. My concern is it won’t be evaluated on its own merits,” Klanderud said. “Clearly this is going to be a campaign issue one way or the other. No doubt about it.”
Councilman Tony Hershey supported her call to delay the debate until a new council is seated in June, but the rest of the council wanted to proceed last night.
At the close of last night’s hearing, only Councilman Terry Paulson wasn’t willing to go forward with further debate on the proposals, though he stopped short of calling for the city to scrap the ideas and start over.
Next month’s continuation of the hearing isn’t likely to be the last discussion on the infill ordinance, Klanderud said.
“Clearly, we’re a long way from hearing all the public comment and we’re a long way from making a decision,” she said.
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