City of Aspen a victim of its own rules

The ramifications of the city of Aspen’s land-use code is having a chilling effect on how the Wheeler Opera House can operate this summer, effectively prohibiting the historic establishment from replacing its air conditioning equipment on the roof.

Last year, Wheeler Executive Director Gena Buhler thought she had found a fix to the failing “chiller” on the opera house’s roof.

It had been malfunctioning even with new parts, resulting in no air conditioning last fall for the art gallery, restaurant and opera house that are housed in the city-owned building.

“We cannot not have air conditioning,” Buhler said of the performance space that brings in thousands of people, as well as the commercial operations that help fund area arts nonprofits.

So when the temporary fixes no longer worked, she and her team decided to replace the entire piece of air conditioning equipment.

The old one went to the landfill and the new one, which is a bit smaller, went on the roof.

The city’s Community Development Department, however, flagged the mechanical permit that had been submitted because it doesn’t comply with the land-use code that was rewritten and approved by Aspen City Council in 2017.

“Unfortunately, the law that was passed by council … we can’t replace any piece of equipment on the roof because it affects the mountain viewplane from (the Hotel Jerome),” Buhler said.

And that goes for any building in any of the seven viewplanes around town.

Jessica Garrow, the city’s Community Development director, said council and staff spent the most time on this section of the reworked land-use code.

The new law is an attempt to make all reviews and rules applied the same way in each viewplane, she noted.

“We want to make sure the viewplanes are preserved,” Garrow said. “We are making sure that everyone’s playing by the rules.”

Buhler learned quickly that the city is not exempt from its own rules.

“It’s a level of bureaucracy that could potentially have a community impact,” she said, adding that she and other municipal government officials didn’t expect to run into this type of problem, especially since the old chiller is now buried in the landfill. “This is a huge awakening to us, and we are the city.”

The city has given the Wheeler a temporary permit to use the new chiller this summer.

“This is a unique situation because it’s an emergency,” Garrow said.

But Buhler will likely have to go before the Historic Preservation Commission for review on the replacement equipment.

“We are hoping that they will look at the law in place and see that it has more of a negative impact than what was intended,” Buhler said. “We are begging for forgiveness.”

Garrow said that per the code, the city will first review the permit administratively and through a viewplane survey, and if doesn’t meet current requirements, it will have to go to HPC.

Buhler said she appreciates the Community Development Department working with the Wheeler to find a solution.

She added that she hopes HPC understands the severity of the situation for the success of a community historic asset.

“It’s been a little stressful,” she said. “At the end of the day, the Wheeler needs to be air conditioned.”


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