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City reviewing need to limit house size

John Colson

Aspen governmental leaders are pondering new laws to limit the sizes of homes built in town.

The new regulations are being considered as the latest strategy for preserving the character and scale of the neighborhoods in town, which has long been a goal of city government.

But, stressed Mayor Rachel Richards, a meeting today is not the prelude to a building moratorium of the kind that was recently imposed by the Pitkin County commissioners.

“There has been absolutely no discussion of that whatsoever,” said Richards on Monday.

Richards emphasized that the City Council is merely looking into possible modifications to existing city codes governing design standards and the “floor-area ratio,” or FAR, of new homes.

The FAR is a computation that governs the maximum size of a home in relation to the size of the lot on which it is to be built. Many of the luxury homes in Aspen, which are the main object of the city’s concern, tend to be in the 3,000- to 6,500-square-foot range, though Richards said she knows of one that is 8,500 square feet in size.

Today, the City Council, along with the Historic Preservation Commission and Planing and Zoning Commission, will tour the

city to look at various new homes and get an idea of how well the city’s current development codes mesh with the council’s feelings about the size, scale and massing of new houses.

Following the tour, which starts at 4 p.m., the three boards will meet at City Hall to talk about what they have seen and whether they feel the city is meeting its goals.

“We’ve been living with these guidelines for some time,” Richards said. “It has far more to do with community character, and the size of the houses in relation to the neighborhood” than with the absolute sizes of new homes.

She pointed out that the city has no absolute cap on the sizes of homes, but that the maximum allowable size of a house is determined by the size of the lot and a host of other factors. This includes what are known as “FAR bonuses,” under which developers or property owners are allowed to exceed the limits in return for certain considerations.

The genesis of the meeting today, Richards said, dates back several years to the time when the City Council passed Ordinance 30, which lays out design review standards for new construction.

The ordinance, she said, created a special design review board to study a development proposal and determine the proposal’s level of compliance with the standards.

If a developer or property owner proposes to build a house that uses up only 80 percent of its allowable FAR, the project does not have to go before the design review board. But if the proposal is to use up to 100 percent of the allowable FAR, it must be submitted to the board for review.

Richards said the City Council decided to stay away from restricting the size of homes, in favor of trying to encourage designs that cut down on construction of “monster homes” that are viewed as too big for the lot or out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.

“The question of FAR was never addressed” when the City Council was debating Ordinance 30, she said. She recalled that she and Councilman Terry Paulson had suggested the council cut house sizes by 15 percent across the board as a way to guarantee homes would not be built as “big boxes” or be out of scale for their neighborhood.

But the council majority preferred to take the design-standards approach.

About a year and a half ago, Richards said, the council started to review the performance of Ordinance 30.

“We were, as a council, disappointed,” she recalled. So the council instructed city planners to begin looking into the FAR question, and the meeting today will give the policy makers a chance to hear what the planners have come up with.

The overall question, she said, has arisen after a number of well-publicized land-use debacles around town, including the demolition of the historic Paepcke House and the construction of what she called “your classic `bustle’ additions, overwhelming the original, historic house.”

She said she has heard rumblings of concern from the development community, which is worried that the city may be about to follow the county commissioners in declaring a moratorium, but denied that this is the plan.

“There’s no preconceived outcome with this,” she said, “no agenda.”


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