Development program protects over 2,400 acres

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The 6-year-old county program that allows development rights to be moved from one parcel of land to another has resulted in the preservation of more than 2,400 acres in the backcountry.

Transferable development rights have become a common tool in development applications, used to exceed house-size limits or avoid Pitkin County’s arduous growth management system, according to a memo prepared by the county’s community development program.

In all, 41 transferable development rights, or TDRs, have been utilized since the program went into effect in 1996.

TDRs were created here in the 1990s, under intense scrutiny and acrimony, as a way to check development of large homes in remote areas that are far from fire stations, electric lines or the nearest paved road.

First, the county commissioners created a new land-use zoning designation known as “rural and remote” and decided it should apply to areas like the back side of Aspen Mountain, Independence Pass and the upper reaches of the Fryingpan River Valley.

Landowners in those areas had a choice. If they wanted to develop the property, they could build a cabin of up to a 1,000 square feet without standard amenities like electricity, telephone service and road maintenance services. Or they could sever the development right from the property and sell it for use somewhere closer to the established grid.

To give TDRs value, the commissioners decided that developers closer to the grid could use them to exceed house-size limits, create new development rights where none currently exist, or avoid the growth management review process.

All five county commissioners who sat on the 1996 board that created TDRs were subjected to a recall effort, and two of them – Mick Ireland and Bill Tuite – survived a recall election.

In a report Wednesday from planner Suzanne Wolff, the current commissioners, including Ireland, were told the current price of a TDR is about $150,000, down from a peak of $250,000 a few years ago.

The 41 TDRs that have actually been used for development purposes represent less than 25 percent of the 169 that have been approved for use around the county. Of the 128 TDRs that are part of development approvals but have yet to be used, 84 are expected to eventually go toward adding floor area to a development and 44 to create new development rights.

The most TDRs purchased for use with a single development was 20 at Aspen Highlands Village in 1998. The approval for the Braun Ranch in Woody Creek calls for the use of between 18 and 30 TDRs, though none have been used yet.

Sixteen rural and remote landowners have opted to develop cabins rather than sever their development rights. Eight have actually done so, seven have their approvals in place but have yet to build, and one used his development right to expand his cabin, according to Wolff’s memo.

Ireland believes the program he helped create is succeeding. He pointed out that 2,400 acres add up to four square miles of land protected from future development.

“I think the program is doing very well,” he said. “At no cost to the public, we’ve moved development from an inappropriate place to an appropriate one.”

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is]