City wants to debate the merits of voluntary historic-property program | AspenTimes.com

City wants to debate the merits of voluntary historic-property program

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The most enticing benefits package it can afford to offer for historic properties won the Aspen City Council’s informal blessing Tuesday.

But the big question – whether the historic designation of a property will be ultimately up to the city or the property owner – remains unanswered.

The majority of the council wants to further discuss the ramifications of making the program voluntary, though experts recommend against it.

“The question has come up, I think it may be a threshold question . and that is whether this program should be voluntary or not,” said Mayor Helen Klanderud.

Klanderud, along with Councilmen Tim Semrau and Tony Hershey, would like to discuss the idea further when the council takes up proposed new rules for historic preservation again on Feb. 25.

Currently, the city can designate a property as historic without the owner’s consent. If the city goes with a voluntary program, owners of already listed properties such as Aspen’s old Victorians and other stately buildings would have the option of opting out, said Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer. And that means those structures could be torn down.

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“If you want to make it voluntary, everything is under threat. There is no protection for anything,” she warned.

A voluntary program won’t work, Councilman Tom McCabe agreed, urging the council to come up with the most substantial benefits it can for property owners who must deal with the extra set of regulations that govern their historic homes and commercial buildings.

The council, though it took no formal action at the work session, generally agreed to most of a long list of potential benefits, including existing perks and some new ones.

Three that entail a substantial financial outlay – city property-tax rebates, grants for work on historic buildings and a no-interest loan fund for the repair of properties – will apparently remain on a wish list. Council members didn’t object to those benefits, they just didn’t know how to fund them.

Proposing a new sales tax to voters to fund the perks would be “politically untenable,” Hershey predicted.

The council did appear interested though, in offering a couple of valuable new benefits, including making the historic lot split available to a broader range of properties.

It is currently available to owners of lots of 9,000 square feet or more in a couple of neighborhoods. Allowing lot splits in more zone districts and for historic lots as small as 6,000 square feet has been proposed.

In all, 90 properties would be affected; all but 25 of them have the lot-split option now, according to Guthrie. Some of the 25 are under consideration for the historic designation.

The council asked to see a map of the affected properties for their Feb. 25 meeting.

Members also agreed to exempt historic properties from a housing exaction. Currently, construction of a caretaker unit is required when a lot is split and a new home is built on the newly created lot. The unit does not, however, have to be rented out.

“This is a great benefit,” said Semrau, noting it gives the property owner extra floor area in the main house that would have been taken up by the caretaker unit.

Offering it makes up for some of the other financial benefits the city can’t offer, McCabe said.