City rewrites its confusing, wordy land-use code
The Aspen City Council got its first look Monday at proposed “simplified”language for the city’s land-use code, and council members likedwhat they saw.But developers hoping for a code that is any less restrictiveare out of luck this time.That’s because, according to City Attorney John Worcester, theupdate of the plan is only intended to make it easier for applicantsto understand what is needed when a land-use proposal is broughtbefore city boards, commissions and council.”Most of it is cosmetic, but it’ll vastly improve the readabilityof [the city’s codes],” Worcester said. “It’s a way to make itmore user friendly … for the developers and for the boards andcommissions.”The simplified version of the city’s code book was presented tothe council at a work session Monday night.Developers and private planning consultants have complained foryears about the complexity and occasional redundancy written intothe city’s codes. Not only developers and their representatives,but even city staffers sometimes had a hard time making senseout of the document.Worcester noted part of the problem is that the codes have beenamended so often, by successive planning departments, attorneysand city councils.Plus, he remarked, “One of the reasons our land-use code is sodifficult to understand is that we’ve got 28 zone districts.”That is far more than normally are found in a small town’s regulations.Nearly three years ago, city staffers and a consultant, using$10,000 appropriated by the City Council for the purpose, satdown to go through the codes and weed out unnecessary language,redundant or conflicting sections and anything that got in theway of clarity.The goal, Worcester said, was to simplify the codes by changingthe format, reorganizing entire sections and including typographicvariations to separate different sections and concepts withinsections.For example, he said, there were repetitive phrases, words thatwould appear once in the definitions but never be referred toagain, and different sections that conflicted with each other.”The fact is, we cut about a quarter of the words out,” said Worcester,who has been essentially heading up the revision effort.One particular problem, Worcester said, was that over the yearscertain code amendments that did not fit anyplace in particularwere simply sandwiched into the “definitions” part of the codebook. This not only complicated the “definitions” section, butmeant anyone looking for those particular code amendments wasnever sure where to find them.Or, Worcester continued, consider the case of “accessory dwellingunits” – small apartments attached to luxury homes and meant asaffordable housing options.”You will find the language [governing ADUs] in maybe five differentsections of the [old] code,” Worcester said.Some of the changes, Worcester indicated, were more “substantive,”including the rewriting of the definitions of such terms as, “demolition,””remodel” and “top of slope.”It is also being proposed that the director of the Community DevelopmentDepartment may call for a nonmandatory “sketch plan review” ofa proposed development.This is to give members of the City Council, the Planning andZoning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission anopportunity to sit down with the developers early in the processand hammer out potential problem areas.The draft revisions also propose letting the community developmentdirector decide whether, and when, to consolidate certain partsof the land-use review process, such as the “stream margin review”or certain kinds of variances, to avoid unnecessary meetings.”I think this will help streamline a lot of the processes thatpeople have to go through,” Worcester predicted of the proposedchanges.He said other, more “substantive” changes in the codes may beproposed later.Although this week’s work session was to be the first look atthe new code by both the council and the city’s P&Z, not enoughmembers of the P&Z showed up to allow for much discussion.Another joint work session has been scheduled for March 22, priorto the regular council meeting. Staffers will give a presentationfor members of the council and the P&Z starting at 4 p.m., andthen the council itself will consider passage of the new codeon first reading during the regular meeting.
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