Construction still slow in Pitkin County

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesResidential constructions projects are under way in unincorporated Pitkin County, east of Aspen, but home construction in general has not rebounded from a recession-fueled plunge, forcing additional staff cutbacks in the county's Community Development Department.

ASPEN – Home construction in unincorporated Pitkin County, which took a recession-fueled nose dive in 2009, has yet to show any sign of rebounding, resulting in additional staff cuts in the county’s Community Development Department.

The department has trimmed the equivalent of roughly nine full-time positions – virtually all within the past two years – in response to the drop in demand for its planning, building and inspection services.

This year, the plans examiner and planning engineer posts were vacated when the individuals who held those positions moved on to other opportunities. The jobs aren’t being refilled. In addition, a staff planner was recently laid off, according to Cindy Houben, Community Development director. All three were full-time positions.

The construction industry in Pitkin County, dominated by residential projects, dropped from 137 projects worth $130.3 million in 2008 to 93 projects worth $71.9 million in 2009, according to building permit data. Last year, 102 residential building permits worth $76.2 million in construction were recorded, and for the first half of this year, 38 permits were issued for $30.9 million worth of work. The projects include new construction, additions and remodeling jobs.

On the nonresidential side, the county issued 13 permits for $4.6 million worth of construction through June of this year.

Last year, the county budgeted for some $200,000 more in revenues than it realized through fees charged by Community Development for plan reviews, inspections, permits and other costs it charges for its services. Those revenues did not rebound in the first half of 2011, keying the need for further cutbacks that were made easier by voluntary resignations.

“For the last several decades, it was just a building frenzy. Obviously, it’s a new norm,” Houben said.

A decade-long boom began in 1998, when the county issued 232 residential building permits along with 33 nonresidential permits for a total of $115.7 million worth of projects.

There were dips below the $100 million mark for residential construction in 2001, 2003 and 2004, but both the number of permits issued and the value of construction dropped off dramatically starting in 2009.

Community Development fees are based, in part, on the value of construction.

Last summer, the county extended building permits that were to expire before Dec. 31, 2010, keeping them valid until June 1 of this year. They were then extended this year to Aug. 31, but only three or four projects took advantage of the latest extension, according to Houben. Seven or eight other applications have simply been withdrawn, she said.

In the Community Development Department and elsewhere, the county is evaluating the changing demand for services in advance of this fall’s budget deliberations, according to Jon Peacock, county manager.

While demand for services has dropped in Community Development, it has increased in the arena of social services and assistance programs administered by the county, he noted.

“We’re taking a look across the organization,” he said.

In Community Development, the public may not find all of the expertise on staff that it once did, but a zoning officer is now doing course work to learn the ropes as a planning engineer. In the Building Department, a five-person staff has been reduced to three, but with one individual out on family leave, another person is working as the county’s plans examiner, chief building official and building inspector, Houben said.

Individuals working in different sections of the department take turns manning the front desk.

“This last round (of reductions) has squeezed our capacity in certain areas,” Houben said.


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