City parts ways with land-use consultants | AspenTimes.com

City parts ways with land-use consultants

Abigail Eagye

Friction between a land-planning consulting firm and Community Development Director Chris Bendon resulted in the firm’s resignation Thursday.The city had contracted Denver-based Clarion Associates, represented by Chris Duerksen, to consult during the city’s building moratorium, currently scheduled to end Oct. 31.Bendon characterized the problem as a personality conflict, but Duerksen said otherwise.”Maybe Mr. Bendon feels it’s a personality conflict, but I didn’t feel that way,” he said Friday afternoon, after learning that the council had discussed the issue at meeting that morning.”We felt that council had been given very clear direction [to city staff], yet they were being asked to give more direction,” he said.At a meeting Wednesday, consultant Henry Beer, who is not with Clarion, suggested that the city’s design standards are fine, but Duerksen’s firm disagreed.”We made it very clear we thought the current design standards were weak,” Duerksen said. From Clarion’s standpoint, the design standards “needed significant revision.”Duerksen said he felt Bendon didn’t give him the opportunity to fully express Clarion’s standpoint at that meeting.”He contradicted me in the middle of a statement in front of council Wednesday night,” he said. “It’s very difficult for a consultant to operate in those conditions.”City Council received a memo about Clarion’s resignation Thursday, and at Friday’s meeting, Councilman Jack Johnson, who has maintained the code merely needed tweaking to address development concerns, said he now wonders if it needs a more thorough examination.Shortly after the council convened Friday, Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she had concerns about proceeding without understanding the reasons for Clarion’s departure.Johnson, too, wondered about the source of the tension.”Is this a matter of personal differences, or is it a matter of a reckless disregard for your authority by a consultant?” he said.Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss had similar reservations.”I respect the parties involved,” he said. “But I’m not willing to do much of anything without knowing more about what the heck happened.”The council members were reluctant to discuss either Duerksen or Bendon in a public forum, prompting them to adjourn to executive session. Afterward, the council reconvened briefly. Mayor Helen Klanderud and Councilman Jack Johnson expressed their support for Bendon, and Johnson suggested the entire Community Development staff may be overworked and tired.The council has added nearly 20 meetings, including four this week alone, to its regular schedule to address issues related to the moratorium. Bendon said after Friday’s meeting that the “aggressive” schedule might have contributed to added pressure on him, his staff and the consultants the city has hired.”Obviously that’s contributed to it,” he said after the meeting. “I’ve been pushing myself personally. I’ve been pushing my staff. I’ve been pushing the consultants.”Johnson gave his support to Bendon and the Community Development staff.”We have a fine, hardworking staff here,” he said. “All have my 100 percent support.”Bendon said the firm’s resignation shouldn’t send the city into a tailspin, nor should it reflect on the quality of the work the firm has provided.”I have a deep respect for Chris Duerksen and for Clarion Associates, and agree with the principles and the direction of the analysis they’ve been providing,” he said. “We hit a little bump in the road. Our personalities didn’t quite mesh. … It’s just part of life. It became an obstacle to us, and that’s unfortunate.”It was not clear Friday whether the council would replace Clarion Associates. The bulk of the work the city contracted Clarion to do is already complete, he said.Despite the possible consequences of the split, Bendon said, “the important thing to do is move forward in the best way we can.”At a regular meeting Aug. 14, the City Council approved a contract with Clarion for a maximum of $50,000. Bendon could not say how much Clarion would receive for work it performed to date. Even if Clarion had not resigned, he said, the total payment could not be determined until Clarion submits bills for its services so far.”There’s no interest on our part to not honor the contract,” he said.Pitkin County commissioners called upon Clarion Associates when they overhauled the county’s land-use codes several years ago. But Duerksen said his company would not return to work on issues related to the city’s current moratorium.”This situation was untenable for us, and we won’t be back to work on this project,” he said.The council will resume discussions Tuesday about how to proceed with moratorium discussions.Abigail Eagye’s e-mail address is abby@aspentimes.com