County, developers wrestle with code
Pitkin County is cracking down on “castle-size” houses and tightening the land-use code, making decisions that are disagreeable to many developers. The land-use code is a gargantuan document that regulates the way people build on and use their property. Pitkin County has had what is considered one of the most restrictive codes in the nation since the mid-1970s. It is credited with preserving some of the rural quality of Pitkin County.Woven through all the public comment about proposed revisions that include B-1 zone districts, TDRs, 1041 divisions, and Chapter Seven scenic standards are concerns about how the rewrite will affect the bottom line of Aspen’s most expensive land-use consultants.”It’s money,” County Commissioner Dorothea Farris said. “It’s greed.”A number of major decisions have been highly charged, with many in the meeting room taking issue with changes to the land-use code during joint meetings of the county commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Commission. “There are a lot of developers in the audience,” Farris said. “They show up because their business depends on it.”Commissioner Mick Ireland agreed. “You have to weigh the voice of people with a direct financial interest, with the people as a whole,” he said. With several meetings on the code rewrite so far this year, few people who don’t have some sort of financial interest in the outcome have been attending the meetings, which will have profound effects on development rights, and the future look and feel of rural Pitkin County. County commissioners’ and planning commissioners’ opinions have often been at odds with those of developers and consultants who have been attending the meetings. On Tuesday, the commissioners voted to cap all houses countywide at 15,000 square feet, roughly the size of the Pitkin County Courthouse. During the discussion, Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he was concerned about not having an upper limit and that even 15,000 square feet is “an awful mess of a house.”The number – 15,000 square feet – has been in circulation since Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, built a 55,000-square-foot mansion in the Starwood gated community.Since then, county regulations have become more restrictive, making it increasingly difficult for proposals of homes approaching 15,000 square feet. Currently, one house that size or larger is built each year in Pitkin County. County staff gave a number of justifications for the new 15,000-square-foot cap, including: conserving energy and material resources placing a limitation on impacts associated with residential floor areas limiting construction impacts to neighborhoods exposed to the lengthy time it takes to build larger homes. “If you’re going to build that big, at least buy a [transferable development right],” Farris said. “It eases our conscience just a little.”The county requires the purchase of transferable development rights for houses larger than 5,750 square feet within the urban growth boundary – a line around Aspen where growth is encouraged more than in rural areas. Paul Taddune, an attorney representing Starwood at the meetings, said extremely large houses have had no adverse impact in the county. Pitkin County commissioners said otherwise.”We’re saying things should be smaller,” Farris said. “If every house requires 10 more people to service it, then where will we put those people? If you don’t have enough roads and no train to put the people in, then you can’t mitigate the effects no matter how many transferable development rights you sell.”Still, transferable development rights help preserve parcels of private land through deed restrictions. Commissioners still want to encourage the program, which needs people to build big homes, but they want to discourage building “castle” homes that have negative affects. Others say the system has been working fine.”What’s the harm in allowing someone to come to a community with some benefits in exchange for a few thousand extra square feet?” said Gideon Kaufman, a local land-use attorney who has been attending meetings. “Maybe there is a circumstance where 17- or 18,000 feet is appropriate. Why not at least leave the option available?”Kaufman also took issue with a decision last month to change the value of transferable development rights.Commissioner Jack Hatfield voted against the decision, saying, “People who bought these had certainty in the code. We need to honor that.” For Kaufman and many others in the audience, it was also about fairness. Some also said it was unfair when the county decided to take away a 1,000-square-foot exemption that allowed the addition of a mud room or garage without requiring the purchase of a transferable development right. County staff said it was often misused or treated as a right to have 6,750 feet.”That’s an exemption we’re allowing for hardship?” said Commissioner Michael Owsley, when the board made the decision. “I don’t get it at all. There is no persecution going on here.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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