Decision delayed on Aspen Fire Department housing project across from airport

Site poles mark the proposed development project in the North 40 neighborhood in Aspen on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday delayed making a decision on a proposed 17-unit Aspen Fire Department affordable housing project at the North 40.

Commissioner Patti Clapper wasn’t able to attend Wednesday’s meeting and asked that a decision on the $17 million development be postponed, Board Chairman Steve Child said.

Despite the delay making a final decision, commissioners heard about the proposal for nearly four hours Wednesday, which included an in-depth presentation by project planner Chris Bendon, Fire Chief Rick Balentine and other department officials as well as lengthy comment from the public. The presentation was the same as the one presented to the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission in June.

The Fire Department wants to build the development next to its North 40 substation across from the Aspen airport using mill levy funds voters approved in November 2018. The 17 units will include one studio, two one-bedroom units, six two-bedroom units, seven three-bedroom units and one nearly 1,800 square-foot single-family home.

The project, which will be all-rental units, will also include a 34-space underground parking garage that project and fire department officials have said will cost $2 million of the $17 million development cost. The planning and zoning commission decided in June that the project doesn’t conform to the underlying master plan for the area, though members also voted to recommend the project to commissioners because of a lack of affordable housing in the Aspen area.

The Aspen Fire Department Board voted June 24 to overrule the P&Z because the department is a division of the state and state law allows the P&Z vote to be merely advisory. However, the fire department board also decided to lower the height of the project from 32 feet to 28 feet to comply with the master plan, said Pitkin County planner Leslie Lamont. The Board of County Commissioners holds more authority over the project than the P&Z and can deny a permit for it that would stop it, at least temporarily, said John Ely, Pitkin County attorney. Should that happen, the fire department could challenge the decision in court or come back with alterations to the project that make it palatable for commissioners, he said.

As they did in June, residents of the neighboring North 40 housing development on Wednesday repeatedly criticized the project as too dense and impactful to the neighborhood. One neighbor said she felt “betrayed” by the department, while another said he didn’t vote for the 2018 mill levy because he knew the situation would end up hurting the neighborhood.

Fire officials said the development is necessary to the very operation of the department and the requirement that volunteers live in the fire district. One longtime volunteer firefighter said it was hurtful to hear the “vitriol” and negativity from neighbors and the assertions that the department doesn’t care.

For their part, commissioners made no comments about the project Wednesday, though they did ask staff for more information about it. The project will again come up for debate at the BOCC on Aug. 12.