Commissioner urges Aspen council to tighten back land-use codes
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – It’s a drum that Aspen Planning and Zoning Commissioner Bert Myrin has been beating for years – but he feels the beat is especially relevant in the wake of the City Council’s decision Feb. 13 to approve a huge multi-use development for the empty corner lot at East Hyman Avenue and South Hunter Street.
In a letter to Mayor Mick Ireland and Aspen’s four council members, Myrin calls out the city’s elected officials for their failure to address concerns about the land-use code in a timely fashion. He references aspects of the code that were loosened by a different council makeup nearly a decade ago, under the administration of former Mayor Helen Klanderud, that are known as “infill.”
Those regulations on height, scale, mass and other aspects of building projects sought to promote development in the downtown commercial core at a time when the economy was humming, speculative development was rampant and developers were aching to start new projects. Today, even with the recent economic downturn, developers still want to get their projects approved under the infill legislation because it’s less restrictive than the code changes the current council is planning to make in the coming months.
Myrin suggested that the council has only itself to blame for uphill negotiations with Aspen Core Ventures, a development group led by managing partner Nikos Hecht, over the preservation of the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings in the 500 block of East Hyman as well as plans for a new, three-story building on the corner lot. The new building would feature a 6,950-square-foot penthouse apartment, a concession to the developer that goes far beyond current land-use code limits.
He said the council simply could have rolled back the code to “pre-infill requirements” in recent years while awaiting a pending rewrite of the Aspen Area Community Plan and associated code changes addressing development rules.
By doing so, the city might have avoided negotiating with developers in recent years under the threat of litigation, Myrin said. With a more restrictive land-use code in place, even on a temporary basis as the new community plan was being drafted, the developers wouldn’t have had as much of a legal leg to stand on.
“Your recent laments about having a weak starting position when negotiating with developers does not resonate since you alone, as our elected officials, hold the power to change the starting point from which you negotiate simply by rolling back the land-use code to pre-infill requirements prior to receiving the next application,” Myrin wrote in his letter Tuesday.
“The Klanderud administration weakened your starting position by voting for the infill code. The infill code promotes development. The infill code reduced open space requirements, reduced parking requirements, increased height and increased the floor-area ratio among other development incentives,” he wrote. “Certainly your goal should be to write code that will establish a clear baseline to avoid making every development a ‘shoot the puppy’ or ‘get our butts kicked’ negotiation.”
Myrin urged the council to roll back the land-use code to the pre-infill levels immediately to avoid the likelihood of another development Aspenites view as out of character for the city, just as discussions on code changes are starting to take shape.
The council will hold a work session to discuss “code-change priorities” at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement of City Hall at 130 S. Galena St. Those changes could take months, however, because officials and staff certainly will debate the content, public hearings will have to be scheduled and opposition from developers and others is likely to slow the process, similar to what has occurred with the community plan rewrite, which has been under way for four years.
“Before you begin the lengthy process of writing concise code, I urge you to simply roll back the land-use code to pre-infill requirements in all the areas identified above. In the interim this will provide you (and the community) a stronger starting position from which to negotiate and avoid irreversible ‘monstrous’ and ‘humongous’ mistakes,” Myrin wrote.
He mentioned “monstrous” and “humongous” mistakes because those were the terms that Councilman Steve Skadron and Ireland used, respectively, when describing their immediate reaction to a 3-D schematic of the corner building and how it would fit into the surrounding area.
“Roll the code back to pre-infill requirements ASAP and promise the community you will work quickly to write code with a happy middle ground if you find the pre-infill numbers too restrictive,” Myrin wrote.
Ireland, the council’s lone vote against the Aspen Core Ventures proposal, agrees that the land-use code needs a lot of work, but he doesn’t favor the temporary step of rolling back the code to the pre-infill days. He also thinks a temporary moratorium on development, which some residents called for at last week’s meeting, would be too drastic.
“Before you can enact any code, people can put in an application and freeze their right to be considered under the existing code,” Ireland said. “There’s not a simple answer to all of this.”
Ireland said there are some aspects of the pre-infill code to which he wouldn’t want to return. For instance, part of the former code gave landowners a type of credit for tearing down a building.
“I don’t want to just adopt that simplistic solution,” he said. “I don’t want to go through adopting that and then adopting some change to it. I want to do it once and do it right.”
Ireland recently circulated a memo to the other council members with his own suggested changes to the code. Details of his proposal are likely to be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I want to make downtown less attractive for residential luxury speculation,” he said. “That’s the primary goal. And to make sure that mass and scale are compatible with what citizens want as opposed to all of this 41-foot-high stuff.”
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