City’s politics in the making for years |

City’s politics in the making for years

Is it reasonable to expect the average Aspen resident to get informed and register an educated vote on development applications?

That question is central to a recently proposed Home Rule Charter Amendment, which, if passed in May, would strip the Aspen City Council of its ability to decide land-use variations and put it in the hands of Aspen’s electorate.

Former Mayor Mick Ireland, one of the organizers who helped get the issue on the ballot with activist Bert Myrin, finds the question insulting.

“It’s almost a bit offensive to say the public can’t possibly understand a land-use application,” he said Friday, adding that the public has decided more complicated issues, one example being 2012’s advisory vote on the controversial Castle Creek Energy Center. “You’ve got a highly educated and involved community here.”

Others point to the vitriol and misinformation that was slung during that hydro debate, warning that with the charter amendment, each development vote would turn into an ad campaign. There’s also the argument that representative Democracy is working in Aspen. Applicants for both the Sky Hotel and Base1 lodge eliminated all variance requests before receiving unanimous council approval on Feb. 9.

“It wasn’t by accident that (developer Mark Hunt) dropped every variance request that he had for (Base1),” said Alan Richman, a planning consultant and former city/county planning director in the 1980s. “He was being told by everyone around him that you can’t be successful in this political environment requesting those things.”

Perhaps a more telling litmus test for Aspen’s political climate was the unraveling of Ordinance 19. Seeing a need to stimulate and rejuvenate Aspen’s aging bed base, a divided council passed the controversial lodge-incentive package in August 2014. The ordinance would have allowed four-story lodge requests near Aspen Mountain, larger free-market residences, fee waivers and decreased affordable-housing requirements, among other incentives for developers

Throughout the approval process, the package drew comparisons to infill, a controversial set of zoning amendments passed in the mid-2000s. Following council approval of Ordinance 19, Myrin and company launched a petition drive to bring the issue to Aspen voters, but before they could gather the required signatures, the council unanimously repealed the program.

“How could five politicians be that out of touch with the community?” Myrin asked at the time.

For the record, Ordinance 19 passed in a 3-2 vote, with councilmen Art Daily, Adam Frisch and Dwayne Romero voting in favor and Mayor Steve Skadron and Councilwoman Ann Mullins dissenting.

Richman said the story with Ordinance 19 is the same as it was with infill. The latter led to approval of the Limelight Hotel and Dancing Bear, as well as settlement agreements with developer Nikos Hecht in the late 2000s that resulted in two hulking structures along Hyman Avenue: the Aspen Art Museum and a mixed-use building that contains a 7,000-square-foot penthouse.

“People are not anxious about what’s cropped up along Hyman Avenue, and they are not anxious to see four-story hotels built at the base of Aspen Mountain,” Richman said.

Richman weighed the pros and cons of Myrin’s charter amendment, but ultimately he does not believe it would enable good decision making.

“There’s no way that the public can spend the time and effort needed to get educated about all the nuances of an application, all the trade-offs. That’s just not reasonable to ask voters to be put in that position,” he said. “That’s why they elect people.”

He said the downside to the charter amendment is that it wouldn’t allow any leeway on projects, requesting slight variances that wouldn’t have significant impact.

“If this thing gets passed, it will lock up some things that really wouldn’t be a problem at all and would help land owners and would be overall a positive thing,” he said.

Richman did note the chilling effect the effort is having on development proposals, using Base1 and Sky Hotel as examples, and he said that if it passes, developers will be much less likely to request significant variances in the first place.

“Developers are not going to put themselves in the position of months and months and spending significant money going through the land-use approval process only to be subjected to a public vote that’s unpredictable,” he said.

Ireland took it a step further, saying that if the charter amendment passes, developers will no longer overpay for commercial property under the assumption that council will grant variances. This practice, he said, leads to speculative purchases and excuses at the council table.

Ireland, who headed the council that approved the settlements with Hecht, said he understands some community members are disappointed with how those situations were handled.

In 2006, developers proposed to replace the Wienerstube with a 42-foot-tall, 47,000 square-foot mixed-use building. Two years later, the council denied the application on the grounds that it was out of scale with the neighborhood. Hecht then sued the city, arguing the council abused its discretion by relying on the Aspen Area Community Plan.

A district court sided with the city, but Hecht appealed and the suit advanced to the Colorado Court of Appeals. That’s when officials agreed to a settlement that resulted in the 47-foot-tall, 33,000-square-foot Aspen Art Museum, in order to avoid the possibility of the lower court overturning its decision.

“I know that people believe the city should have fought until the end,” Ireland said. “But that could have resulted in a larger building and empowered others to develop at the same level.”

The charter amendment, which would apply to downtown commercial properties but not residential, also would subject settlement agreements to public voting. Myrin said the proposal is the beginning of the end of what needs to happen, while Richman maintains that land-use action should not be decided by a public vote.

“If the rules aren’t working, then the rules need to be fixed,” Richman said.

Today the council is expected to address recommendations from Aspen’s Community Development Department, which would put a 2-foot cap on height variance requests and a 10 percent cap on floor area variance requests, while also eliminating most housing-mitigation reductions. As proposed, anything beyond those limitations would trigger a public vote. However, an approved charter amendment would override whatever, if any, code changes the city adopts.

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