Claiming the Mother Lode |

Claiming the Mother Lode

Buying and selling property are the two major issues for upper Roaring Fork Valley voters on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The city of Aspen wants to buy a restaurant and sell a piece of open space. But voters need to stay on their toes: One ballot issue may be withdrawn by the Aspen City Council before Election Day because of a potential compromise over the controversial Puppy Smith property.

There are three candidates for two seats on the Aspen School District board, and the daily editions of The Aspen Times will profile each hopeful in the coming weeks.

Residents of Brush Creek Metropolitan District will decide whether to increase their taxes to pay for neighborhood improvements like water and street construction. Just down Highway 82, Aspen Village residents will vote on forming their own metropolitan district, and whether to increase taxes through a mill levy to pay for neighborhood maintenance.

It’s not a long or sizzling-hot ballot, but there are some investments on the table for which the city of Aspen needs voter approval.

A mother of a potential purchase

A venerable Italian restaurant is up for sale, and voters will decide whether the city of Aspen should buy the space for $3.25 million.

After 35 years in the business, Mother Lode restaurant owner Howard Ross says he’s ready to move on. Ross and partner Gordon Whitmer listed the property for sale this summer.

The city is interested mainly because of the Mother Lode’s proximity to the Wheeler Opera House. When combined with the 6,000-square-foot, city-owned lot between the restaurant and the historic Wheeler, the Mother Lode could be part of a major Wheeler expansion.

In early September the City Council voted 4-1 to enter into a contract to buy the Hyman Avenue parcel.

According to Referendum 2E, the purchase would be made with funds from a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax for the renovation and maintenance of the Wheeler. Acquisition of the restaurant would double the space available for expansion of the opera house into a larger arts center, though there are no specific plans yet.

If voters approve the sale, Ross has agreed to help operate the Mother Lode for a year while the city seeks another operator for the restaurant.

“Voter approval will provide the Wheeler and the arts community the opportunity to pursue improvements that have been dreamed of for more than 30 years,” according to a city press release.

But Councilman Tim Semrau still opposes the purchase for a number of reasons, including a possible lack of funds for a future Wheeler expansion.

“It’s somebody’s Mother Lode, but it might not be ours,” he said. “[Buying the Mother Lode] would take $3.2 million out of the Wheeler fund, precluding the use of that money for any expansion. The city manager says a decade would be needed for the Wheeler to make money to expand into that site.”

Semrau doesn’t want to buy the property for a Wheeler expansion that no one has thoroughly researched. But other council members, including Rachel Richards and Mayor Helen Klanderud, see the purchase as a “strategic investment” and an opportunity that might not be available in the future.

Puppy Smith, or no Smith at all?

Referendum 2D appears on the already-printed Aspen ballots, but the issue may be moot by Election Day.

Referendum 2D asks voters to approve the sale of a $250,000 parcel at 220 Puppy Smith St. The city bought the property with open-space funds in the mid-’80s, but now wishes to build a three-unit employee housing project there. Some city residents have argued that public open space should not be converted to housing.

An existing cottage on the lot houses one city employee, and the city would like to renovate that home and build two other units. One of the units would be offered to a city worker, and the others would become part of the general affordable-housing pool.

But here’s the catch: A possible land swap with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is in the works, and city staffers will ask the council Oct. 14 to withdraw the November referendum from the ballot. If the council agrees, any votes cast on the issue will be ignored.

Tom Cardamone, ACES executive director, said the land swap idea emerged because of a need to filter storm water that flows into the Roaring Fork River. The proposed location for the wetlands filtration system is in Jenny Adair Park near ACES. The center would like to give the city permission to build the wetlands on the land, which is now deed-restricted for conservation.

If ACES could trade a piece of its land behind the Aspen post office (currently a dirt parking lot) for the 220 Puppy Smith parcel, Cardamone said, then the city could build its housing units behind the post office and ACES could keep the open space in question for an entry to ACES or a scenic overlook of the wetlands.

City Manager Steve Barwick said the land swap is a better idea than the ballot proposal, but council members will make the final decision Oct. 14.

Stay tuned, voters.

Charter changes

In another measure, the city of Aspen is asking voters to approve a series of minor revisions to the city charter.

Changes to the charter always require voter approval. Referendum 2B seeks to eliminate inconsistencies between the city charter and state statutes.

“We’re trying to be consistent with state statutes because it creates confusion with some people who look at the charter and the state statutes and wonder which one to follow,” city attorney John Worcester said.

The amendments include changes to the petition process for a citizens’ initiative, and when an ordinance takes effect. They also eliminate the ability to file supplemental petitions if a citizens’ signature collection effort initially falls short.

Voting for power

The Aspen ballot also includes Referendum 2C, a franchise agreement between the city and Holy Cross Energy.

Since Aspen’s old deal with the energy supplier expired in July, voters must approve a replacement agreement. The new proposal calls for the city to provide electricity through its own municipal utility to no more than 500 new affordable-housing units outside of the city’s service area, such as the 330 planned homes at Burlingame Ranch.

Aspen wants to provide power to Burlingame because 57 percent of the city’s power comes from renewable sources – either water- or wind-generated power. The city utility provides energy mainly to Aspen’s core, while Holy Cross provides power elsewhere.

Under the new agreement, Holy Cross would pay 3 percent of its gross revenues from Aspen customers as a franchise fee to the city.

The fee will amount to about $150,000 to $175,000 a year that the city uses to purchase renewable energy, Worcester said. That fee from Holy Cross has been 3 percent for the past 25 years.

Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is

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