Decoding the county land use code |

Decoding the county land use code

Joel Stonington
Pitkin County's land-use code governs, among other things, how big houses can be, which impacts what the county looks like. (Jim Paussa)

Seemingly endless public meetings between county commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Commission have hashed out possible revisions to the county land-use code. In addition to being complex, the code is incredibly important in determining how the county looks.Pitkin County has had 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. This latest rewrite follows that path, making regulations governing development more restrictive.One of the big differences in the revised code will be organization. The code has not undergone a revision in more than 10 years, creating contradictions and problems with the revision of certain sections. “The code is going to be much more rational,” said County Commissioner Michael Owsley. “People will be able to follow through on the code in a fairly easy way. Previously the requirements were hidden. It was hard to cross-reference it all.”The new restrictions, however, might mean more work for planners, architects and others involved in real estate because more restriction means more regulations.”It’s been well done,” said Glenn Horn, a local planning consultant. “But it’s going to be more complicated. It will be time-consuming.”Another major change is with the transferable development rights program, implemented in 1994 in conjunction with an extremely restrictive zoning classification known as rural and remote to preserve the backcountry from development. TDRs, which developers can purchase to exceed size limits or create building rights, have to date been limited mostly to remote, backcountry lots and mining claims. Whenever a TDR sells, the parcel it comes from is preserved from future development.”This code will allow people in any part of the county, with at least 160 acres, to transfer development rights,” said Cindy Houben, the county’s director of community development. “The county should stay at a traditional, rural, residential scale.”The county commissioners have voted to approve the entire code on first reading. The most significant changes to the land use code include the following:GMQS vs. TDRsWould a land-use code really be a land-use code without mind-numbing acronyms? Of course not. And Pitkin County has two such acronyms that are critically important to it’s efforts to limit development: GMQS and TDR.One major change to the land use code envisions a system that requires more development applications to go through the GMQS because there’s less they can do with TDRs. Not clear? Read on.The county limits the rate at which zoned areas can develop through the growth management quota system – aka GMQS. The GMQS, sets an allotment of square footage that can be built in a given neighborhood each year. Property owners and developers must compete for the allotted square footage in, say, Snowmass/Capitol Creek or the Crystal River Valley, in order to gain the building rights necessary for their development.In order to gain a building right, the developer must submit an application that the county P&Z reviews against a set of criteria to encourage environmentally sensitive development. Those applications that best conform to the criteria score highest and are awarded building rights; those that fall short may not move forward until they go through the process again.”The growth management quota system is the foundation of the world of Pitkin County,” Houben said. “If we did away with growth management, there’s no way we could impose a lot of these other things. Currently, a developer or homeowner can buy a TDR, and in doing so, create a building right on a new parcel. So the change is significant, because it eliminates one way for a developer to buy his way out of the GMQS review.”The quotas [total square footage available under GMQS] are pretty low for growth management,” Horn said. “You can’t opt out of the GMQS by purchasing TDRs, so it will limit the rate of growth in rural areas.”TDR: 2,500 square feetfor $250,000The system of trading transferable development rights came about as an innovative way to conserve land in Pitkin County. A landowner with more than 160 acres can deed-restrict a chunk of land to create a TDR, which currently have a market value of around $250,000. Previously, TDRs were worth 2,500 square feet of additions or 5,750 square feet of new development. This decision was contentious partially because it will change the value of existing TDRs. Gideon Kaufman, a local land-use attorney who has been attending meetings, also took issue with the decision to change the value of transferable development rights, and Commissioner Jack Hatfield voted against the decision, saying, “People who bought these had certainty in the code. We need to honor that.” Part of the thinking was that including the urban growth boundary in the 5,750-square-foot limit for houses would create a larger market for TDRs.5,750 limit – except when exceptedPreviously, Pitkin County had a limit of 5,750 square feet for houses in rural areas. The only way to surpass that limit was to compete for available square footage under the yearly allotments the growth management quota system provides, or to purchase a transferable development right. Homes within the urban growth boundaries, which designate much denser development and growth than in outlying rural areas, could be as large as 15,000 square feet.When the new code passes, the 5,750-square-foot limit will apply within urban growth boundaries as well as outside of them. One landowner within the urban growth boundary, Justine Kirk, thought it was unfair that people who had already developed their land basically got more value out of having big houses. Now, however, someone wanting to go over 5,750 would need to buy a transferable development right, currently about $250,000, on the open market.”Longtime Aspenites should be allowed the same development rights as their second homeowner neighbors without having to pay for the TDRs to develop,” Kirk said at one meeting. “Every time you make a change you’re going to affect someone’s property,” said Paul Rudnick, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. “Someone who can build a house in excess of 5,750 can afford to buy a TDR. That’s typically the situation.”15,000-square-foot limit countywideOnce the code passes, the final extent that anyone will be allowed to build in Pitkin County with the use of TDRs or the growth management quota system will be 15,000 square feet. Currently, 17 houses in the county exceed 15,000 square feet, and another recently gained approval for construction. “I voted against it,” Rudnick said, explaining his opposition to the 15,000-square-foot limit. “If you’ve got a 20,000-square-foot house, invisible to the public, in order to build to that size you have to acquire a lot of TDRs, so you are effectively sterilizing to development other areas of the county.”Commissioners want to encourage the TDR program, which needs people to build homes over 5,750, but they want to discourage building “castle” homes that have negative affects to the county such as the large use of resources.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?” Kaufman said. “Maybe there is a circumstance where 17 or 18,000 feet is appropriate. Why not at least leave the option available?” Other changes Scenic review has been increased by designating numerous county roads as scenic. New standards will apply to these areas, though county commissioners voted not to apply the scenic standards from trails or other areas in the county. 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. 4,000-square-foot basements and 750 square foot garage are still allowed, but if they push the house size over 5,750 square feet, they must now be acquired through GMQS or purchase of TDRs. This is expected to increase the demand for TDRs. Stream setbacks were changed from 20 to 50 feet. This includes wetlands and riparian areas. So this could have a significant affect on private property throughout the county. There were a few site-specific issues that were taken on during the rewrite process. Rocky Mountain Institute wanted to enlarge their buildings. However, the county voted to limit the size of new development by institutional uses in rural areas. Another site-specific change was in allowing Redstone to have signs that announce the town on Highway 133.The revised land use code was published in the Aspen Times on March 26. Second reading of the code begins on April 11. Public hearings will run from 2 to 7 p.m. for three consecutive days (April 11-13) with topics changing based on progress. The county expects to give final approval to the code on the April 13. Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is

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