Developer, Pitkin County at impasse over housing project |

Developer, Pitkin County at impasse over housing project

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” The man who developed the Centennial condominium project in Aspen more than 20 years ago says he wants to add up to six affordable housing units and two free-market units to it.

But in order to win Pitkin County’s approval, he would have to eliminate a legal provision that one day will turn Centennial into a free-market project. Developer Sam Brown said he isn’t about to do that.

Brown said this week that he can’t get the Pitkin County commissioners to talk with him about his idea, and he can’t formally apply to the city of Aspen for development review without the county’s cooperation because of what Brown views as a legal technicality.

The commissioners, on the other hand, believe Brown is the one who isn’t cooperating fully, and they won’t discuss his proposal until he meets certain terms.

At least one commissioner said this week that Brown has refused to talk about eliminating a unique provision of the original planned unit development (PUD) approvals for Centennial, which call for a drastic change in the project’s legal status at some point in the future.

Centennial contains 149 units, 92 of which are for-sale and all of which are deed restricted as affordable, Brown said. It was built in the early 1980s at the base of Smuggler Mountain on Aspen’s east side.

Although initially located outside the city’s boundaries, and thus falling under the county’s legal jurisdiction, it was ultimately annexed into the city, but with a county deed restriction governing the project’s open space.

Under the provision in question, the entire project reverts to free-market status 21 years after the death of the last surviving commissioner who voted on the Centennial approvals.

“My great-grandchildren are the beneficiaries,” said Brown, who remains the owner of the development.

Brown, who has been meeting with government representatives since last summer about his proposal, said that he only realized last fall that the county’s open-space deed restriction remained in place.

In a prepared statement about his situation read aloud at the July 9 county commissioners meeting, Brown requested some sort of action on the county’s part so he can move ahead with his proposal.

That proposal is to build up to six affordable housing units plus what he described as two “modestly-sized units of free market housing … so that we could recover the costs of the affordable housing,”

The total size of the two free-market units, he said, would be less than 7,500 square feet of FAR, or floor-area-ratio, which is local government’s way of describing the livable area of a home.

Citing statements from the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority that the current rate of subsidy for affordable housing is $400,000 per unit, Brown maintained that his offer represents “essentially a $2.4 million contribution to affordable housing.”

In addition, he said, his plan is to build the free-market homes to function “off the grid,” meaning self-sufficient as far as energy use is concerned, in line with Aspen’s publicly stated goal of encouraging energy-efficient growth.

But, Brown explained, the county’s open-space deed restriction covers that part of the Centennial property where he hopes to build the two free-market homes.

The deed restriction, he said, dedicates roughly 10.6 acres of ground as open space, although he maintained that he wants only 14,000 square feet of that space, or about a third of an acre, to build the two free-market homes.

The six affordable units, he said, are planned for an “underused parking lot at the end of Nicholas Lane. We have parking in excess of the requirements.”

But, he said, as long as that deed restriction is in place, his proposal is dead in the water.

“I believe that it is in the public interest ” and should be the right of a property owner ” to make a clear presentation at a work session with the appropriate planning authority where the benefits and costs of the proposal can be weighed in public,” Brown declared in his statement.

Late on July 10, Brown said his planning consultant, Glenn Horn, had been told that day by county attorney John Ely that the county commissioners don’t want to talk about it.

Brown expressed puzzlement about the commissioners’ position.

But County Commissioner Michael Owsley, reached late Thursday, said that Brown is fully aware of how the commissioners feel, after a discussion with county officials earlier in the year.

Owsley said the commissioners pointed to the PUD provision and said to Brown, “Let’s see, you want public open space converted to private use. OK, what’s your offer?”

Owsley said Brown stuck to the affordable housing as his enticement to the county, but when pressed about dropping the conversion of the project to free-market status, “He said, ‘No way.'”

Expressing confidence that the provision can be eliminated, Owsley said, “Anything can be undone.”

As for Brown’s public statements about his predicament, Owsley said simply, “All that posturing was for public consumption.”

He said that, should Brown decide he wants to build the houses badly enough to reconsider his position regarding the reversion provision, the county will likely be willing to listen.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield went a bit further, declaring that even if Brown were to agree to waive the provision to convert Centennial to free-market status, that waiver would not automatically guarantee Hatfield’s support for additional units.

“I feel that it would destroy a neighborhood” to build more units on what has been open space for more than 20 years, he said, adding that if Brown agrees to the waiver it would at least open the door to discussions about the additional housing.

Brown, however, said he has never been told by any of the commissioners, directly, that the waiver of the conversion provision is a goal identified by the commissioners as a group.

“Of course I have heard that,” he said, noting that the county attorney brought up the idea during discussions.

But regardless of who said it, Brown remarked, “That’s ludicrous. Eliminate the deed restrictions of 148 units in return for two houses? Not going to happen.”

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