City historical preservation again ignites angry words
Public anger over the city of Aspen’s historic preservation program welled up again last night, setting city staffers and the mayor on the defensive.
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission, its historic preservation officer and more than one member of its planning department were the focus of growing ire as a public hearing on the future of Charles Tower’s property on the east end of town dragged into a third hour.
“Chuck was misled,” said Ron Kanan, a local property owner who has had his own problems with the city’s historic preservation code. “He went in trusting staff, thinking they had his best interests in mind.”
“Every time I want to do something, I have to hire Gideon Kaufman, and this expert and that person,” said Jack Simmons, owner of the historically designated Holland House Ski Lodge. “There is no trust left in this town.”
At one point in the hearing, Mayor Rachel Richards and Councilman Tony Hershey squabbled over the appropriateness of Hershey’s response to hostile remarks from a member of the audience. At another point, City Attorney John Worcester stepped in to cut off comments by Aspen’s Community Development director, Julie Ann Woods, made during Tower’s presentation.
The person with the best control over his emotions was Tower himself, the one with the most at stake.
Tower owns property at the corner of Hyman Avenue and Cleveland Street, where three log cabins are located. The cabins are prefabricated kit homes placed on the lot over a four-year period between 1948 and 1952. Each contains two studio units that have been home to six local workers for as long as anyone can remember.
Tower was before the City Council to contest the city’s designation of all three cabins as “historic.” Specifically, he charged the city denied him the due process required by its own laws, and said the Historic Preservation Commission abused its discretion on Nov. 15 when it denied his request to have the cabins taken off the city inventory of historically significant properties.
Tower maintains his due process was violated beginning in 1992, when the cabins were first designated historic. He said the city never posted his property nor contacted him through the mail or by phone to warn him about the pending designation. The city maintains it sent Tower a letter and published notice in The Aspen Times. The city staff member who was sitting in for historic designation officer Amy Guthrie, who is on maternity leave, said the city had indeed sent Tower a letter in 1992 when it was only obligated to publish notice in the newspaper.
The due process problems continued in 1997, when the city failed to perform a review of Tower’s property within the historic preservation program, as required every five years by the city code.
When the review was finally conducted this year, Tower’s attorney Michael Hoffman pointed out, the HPC and the city staff found problems with the Tower designation. At a Sept. 13 hearing, a majority of the commissioners agreed there were problems, and at least one vote came out in Tower’s favor.
But the next day, according to testimony at last night’s appeal, three of the historic preservation commissioners resigned in protest over the city’s attempt to add a large swath of the city’s post-World War II architecture to the historic inventory. A week after the resignations, the new, smaller commission reversed its position on some of it findings from the Sept. 13 meeting. On Nov. 15, the HPC formally found against Tower.
As for HPC’s alleged abuse of discretion, Tower and Hoffman pointed out that at the time of designation in 1992, the buildings were less than 50 years old, a key requirement. And they presented a University of Colorado professor who said the only other criteria in the code that would permit their listing, that the buildings are an “outstanding example of more modern architecture,” did not apply to Tower’s property.
“I heard Woods say that the word significant is a matter of semantics,” professor John Feinberg said. “Semantics is what this is all about. The HPC was supposed to work under guidelines that it understands and that Mr. Tower can understand. I don’t know what Mr. Tower is supposed to do in this circumstance.”
In the end, Tower asked for his appeal to be tabled while he and city staff looked into moving the buildings to a city-owned site. The City Council agreed, delaying their deliberations and decision until Jan. 22.
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