County looks into new procedure for infrastructure projects |

County looks into new procedure for infrastructure projects

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Pitkin County officials on Aug. 13 moved to prevent court challenges from undermining the county’s ability to do work on public infrastructure projects.

A proposed new section of the Pitkin County code, which will be subject to a public hearing Aug. 27, is designed to set up “a review procedure for public infrastructure projects that advance the public health, safety, convenience or welfare,” that does not involve the kinds of extensive review that are required for regular development proposals.

In a memo to the county commissioners, assistant county attorney Chris Seldin argued that “many existing code provisions were not designed to address public infrastructure project development,” such as road repairs and safety improvements to public facilities, public recreation projects and redevelopment of existing county facilities.

The issue arose, however, when a group of Castle Creek homeowners sued the county over its plans for a pedestrian trail between the Aspen Music School campus and the Marolt housing complex, both of which are located on Castle Creek Road.

The homeowners, among others, objected to both the cost of the project ” $1.9 million for roughly 3,000 feet of trail ” and to the way the county gave approvals for the trail project without going through the kind of extensive government review that is typical for developments in the area.

The homeowners filed suit in July 2007 and, in December 2007,was granted a temporary injunction in the case, stopping all work on the trail. The case is still in court, and the county has taken the position that members of the public do not have the authority to “enforce the county code,” which is the sole purview of the county commissioners.

Seldin said the ordinance, which would add a new section to the land-use code, would set up a “multistep process” of review by county staff members and by the elected Board of County Commissioners, with “at least three opportunities for public involvement.”

The process also would give the commissioners the authority to “establish which standards will govern each particular project,” thereby avoiding the need for certain kinds of review deemed inappropriate for a given project.

As an example, Seldin said an avalanche could destroy part of a local road, such as Castle Creek Road, and if neighboring landowners did not like the way the county planned to fix the road they could file a lawsuit and stop all work for an indefinite period.

County Commissioner Rachel Richards remarked that the ordinance has been likened to an “exemption” from county codes, a characterization she felt was not accurate. She said it creates a new section of code and therefore cannot be called an exemption.

“Probably most of the roads in the county could not be built under existing codes,” she added, noting that many roads cross avalanche zones and other hazard areas.

Officials said specifically that the ordinance does not enable the county to bypass its own rules in its efforts to build large-scale projects, such as affordable housing.

But commission chair Jack Hatfield, announcing he did not support the ordinance, argued, “I don’t think we’re going to build any more roads” and that consistency in the application of laws is the real issue.

“This is an exemption,” he said flatly. “We’re exempting ourselves.” When asked about repairing communications equipment in remote locations, or rebuilding county roads, Hatfield said that, “For me, maintenance and emergencies, they don’t apply here.”

Hatfield was the sole dissenting vote, and the measure passed on first reading by a vote of four to one.

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