Could variance controls equate to upzoning in downtown? |

Could variance controls equate to upzoning in downtown?

Members of the Aspen City Council expressed concern Monday that the planning office’s proposed variance-control measures could equate to an upzoning of downtown Aspen.

In response to a ballot initiative that seeks to strip the council of its ability to grant variances without a public vote, city planners have proposed a series of land-use-request limitations on height, floor area and affordable housing. As proposed, any council-granted variance 2 feet above allowable height or 10 percent beyond allowable floor area would trigger a public vote.

Mayor Steve Skadron asked planners what would stop developers from asking for an additional 2 feet and 10 percent, therefore establishing a new zoning baseline.

“How do you control this from becoming the basic request of an applicant?” Skadron asked.

Community Development Director Chris Bendon pointed out that as the code is currently written, developers can request whatever height they choose, but the proposed code amendment creates benchmarks.

“The applicant is understanding that those requests, even if granted, are subject to an additional public vote. It’s a complete game-changer to the application process,” Bendon said.

Skadron responded that this issue will be a point of contention for him when the code change returns for a public hearing March 9. Both he and Councilwoman Ann Mullins said they will need more evidence from planners that the changes won’t result in an essential upzoning.

During the public-comment portion of Monday’s meeting, seven people spoke out against the proposed code changes. The group included attorney Bert Myrin, who along with organizers garnered more than 1,000 signatures — 381 verified — in successfully advancing the Home Rule Charter Amendment question to May’s ballot. All seven urged the council to shoot down the proposed code amendment on first reading.

“Address the substance and stop with the process,” Myrin said. “I think you have the process under control.”

Councilman Art Daily said he doesn’t believe Myrin’s absolute limits on height, floor area, affordable housing and parking are necessarily healthy, adding that the planning office’s draft proposal is headed in the right direction.

“I’m not saying the specifics are the right ones, but the tightening down of these limits to a reasonable framework, which allows the council and the builder some reasonable discretion … are healthy ones,” Daily said. “They eliminate by and large the risks of abuse in decision making by council or even in the applicant community. (Developers are) told, ‘Keep it to code, and if you’re going to keep it slightly beyond code, you better have an awfully good reason for it.’”

Daily added that he thinks this council’s response to development has been measured, especially given that the past two lodge applicants removed all variance requests. Councilman Dwayne Romero agreed with Daily, saying he hit the nail on the head philosophically. Romero added that he recognizes the anger and frustration from community members over development “as 1,000-plus signatures attest.”

“Ultimately, it’s a trust issue,” Romero said. “Not individually of any person or personality, but just the process — there’s a trust issue.”

Noting that any approved charter amendment would supersede whatever code change the council adopts, Councilman Adam Frisch asked if the council should consider waiting until after the election to hammer down specifics.

“If (the charter amendment) doesn’t pass, is (this code amendment) really the one that you want to be binding for X amount of time?” Frisch said. “Or is it better to digest, pause and reflect, see what happens and try to make the next one?”

He also stated his position that he does not want the charter amendment to pass, arguing that it’s a heat-of-the-moment response; one that will result in buyer’s remorse for Aspen.

Mullins said that if the code changes had been voted down on first reading, it would have eliminated the public’s ability to debate the issue at second reading. The council unanimously approved the ordinance to advance to a public forum.

In other business

Aspen voters may be able to cast their ballots at traditional polling places in May after all.

The Aspen City Council decided Monday that it will consider a hybrid election, with mail-in as well as polling-place options. In January, the council initially voted to hold the May 5 election as a mail-in contest, based on the state Legislature’s adoption of two bills that affect the way municipal elections are conducted. Dissenting voters Mayor Steve Skadron and Councilman Art Daily argued that a mail-in election would take away from Aspen tradition.

On Monday, former Councilman Torre suggested the hybrid option. City Attorney Jim True said the council can address specifics on amending the prior approval March 9.

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