Don’t lock the public out of Burlingame discussions
For reasons that are obvious to anyone who lives here, the Burlingame Village affordable housing project is knee-deep in controversy even before the final plans have been committed to paper.
Longtime locals who live nearby have gone on the warpath to stop the project. The residential golf club next door has gone to court with the same goal in mind. And members of the City Council’s volunteer planning commission have gone on record as saying the project is inappropriate for its location, on the other side of Deer Hill between the Aspen Airport Business Center and the Maroon Creek Golf Club, because it represents the kind of urban sprawl that the planning commission members despise.
And now, a new form of community discontent with the Burlingame project has erupted. Members of the Harvey family, members of the community’s environmental elite, have accused the city of making shady deals with the landowners whose property abuts the Burlingame parcel.
The city has been negotiating with the landowners, the Zolines, for some time, hoping to arrange a deal whereby the Zolines could build luxury housing on part of their ranch and the city could build the 225-unit Burlingame Village partly on Zoline land that is adjacent to the city-owned land. That way, the city could avoid building housing in the bowl or on the crest of Deer Hill itself, thereby avoiding a confrontation with boisterous environmental activists who consider Deer Hill a necessary piece of urban open space.
But critics of the negotiations believe the city is in the process of giving away too much in the way of development approvals, in return for the Zoline lands.
The problem, of course, is the city is conducting these negotiations behind closed doors, so no one really knows what is going on except the council members, the lawyers and the Zolines.
To be sure, state law allows such meetings to be held in secret sessions, under the heading of “land acquisition.” But in this case it would seem that the secrecy is inappropriate. The outcome of these talks is of deep concern to an awful lot of people, whether among the legions of locals seeking permanent housing or among those who believe that a significant amount of open space on the Zoline/ Burlingame lands should be protected.
The city cannot be forced to open up these bartering sessions. The state legislature has decreed that such sensitive negotiations cannot take place in the light of day, because public scrutiny could have a negative effect on the deal.
But the fact remains that this particular deal is of particular public interest. It is not your run-of-the-mill attempt to buy land for a park, a parking garage or some other mundane use.
The open space and wildlife questions are exactly the kinds of issues that have long held a central place in Aspen’s planning.
The money involved is considerable, both from the standpoint of public expenditures for affordable housing to the amount of profit the Zolines stand to make on the deal.
And, to put it bluntly, it appears the citizens of Aspen do not entirely trust their elected officials to cut the best deal possible.
Given all this, it would behoove the city administration to come up with a way to let the people know as clearly as possible what is going on with the Burlingame swap. Because if it continues to take place behind closed doors, and the ultimate outcome is something the citizenry is unhappy with, it will only add to the worsening apathy and cynicism of the city electorate and widen the gap between the people and their elected leaders.
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