Email barrage tilted scales for Aspen demolition permits

The barrage of emails from BendonAdams overwhelmed the city's email server, striking an advantage.

Fair game or out of bounds?

That’s a question some people are asking after the planning firm BendonAdams was first in the email line earlier this month for the six demolition allotments available through the city of Aspen.

Starting at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 8, the city opened its email application process for the allotments on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications stamped 8:30 a.m. and afterwards would be reviewed in the order they were received. Applications with an email time stamp before 8:30 a.m. would not be considered for review, the city said. Applications could only be submitted by email.

The competition for demolition permits is new this year, and homeowners aiming to raze and redevelop their Aspen properties now have limited opportunities to do so. The Aspen City Council decided earlier this summer that six annual demolition permits will be available annually. Reducing the number of allotments — there were 21 demolitions in 2021, according to the city — was one way the council approached slowing the pace of construction after it enacted a temporary ban on residential development in December.

The moratorium expired Aug. 8, the same date the city debuted its application process for demo allotments.

The city received applications associated with 13 properties that morning, and the Aspen firm BendonAdams claimed the top eight positions in the order they were received. The other five missed the cut, according to city officials.

Representatives for two of those five homeowners pointed out they submitted one email application per property. Yet there were a combined 406 email applications for the eight properties BendonAdams represented, according to city records. Seventy-five of those emails came before 8:30 a.m. and were not considered, the city said. The other 336 emails arrived after 8:30 a.m., according to the city.

“Clearly other participants, by sending one email, were doing their best to play by the spirit and intent of what the community was trying to achieve in a fair submission,” said Andrew Roberts, who with Christian Butler emailed an application on behalf of the owners of a Riverside Drive property.

City officials around the third week of August notified all of the applicants of the order in which their applications were received and examined, but it took longer than they expected to make that determination because of the flood of emails.

The city’s community development director, Phillip Supino, said the demo allotments have yet to receive a notice of approval, and the outcome “is not final here, and we are doing our best under very challenging and unexpected circumstances to run this process with our rules and expectations.

“We’re in the process of a comprehensive review of all of these applications and how all of the applications were transmitted to our department,” he said. “And all we’ve done so far is communicate to applicants an initial determination of completeness. Each one of these demo allotments ultimately needs a notice of approval in order to be formally issued. With that in mind, the outcome is not final here, and we are doing our best under very challenging and unexpected circumstances to run this process in accordance with our rules and expectations.”

Sara Adams and Chris Bendon, name partners with BendonAdams, said last week they were simply abiding by the process the city established, noting there were no restrictions on the number of emails per application.

“We followed the city’s protocols and worked around the clock to make sure the applications were complete,” said Adams. “And our No. 1 goal is to put our clients in the best possible position, and that’s what we did.”

Both Adams and Bendon previously worked for the city’s community development office before they hung up their own shingle in early 2016. Bendon was the department’s director and Adams its historic preservation officer.

“One,” said Bendon, “it’s a new process, and we spent a lot of time back and forth with the (city’s) planning staff to understand what the protocol would be and what the process is so we can put forward a complete application that meets the goals of our clients, and that’s what we did.”

BendonAdams also was first in line for the two annual allotments available to residents who have lived in their homes at least 35 years.

“It’s a new process, and there are fewer allotments than there is demand,” said Bendon.

Roberts and Aspen architect Ryan Walterscheid, who represented a different property owner, questioned how the same firm with two ex-city employees finished ahead of the other applicants.

“The optics aren’t good, and it doesn’t quite pass the sniff test when you have two former city of Aspen employees with intricate knowledge of the way it works with regards to communications,” said Roberts.

Walterscheid said, “Our clients are clearly pretty upset, and I think they’re waiting to see how the city manages this situation before they take any further action. I think they recognize the city is in a Catch-22.”

The Catch-22 is this: The city said it fielded the application emails in the order that they were time-tamped so long as they were completed with the required information. The barrage of emails from BendonAdams, however, apparently overwhelmed the city’s email server.

“If the city is to change their position, it’s going to cause problems for the ones who think they’re in line,” Walterscheid said.

The city process for applying for demolition permits was straightforward, Supino said.

“I think the process that the planning department runs for any application is inherently fair,” he said. “That’s how we’ve done business in our department since we were created. Our job is to fairly and equitably serve the public and our customers.”

Supino, however, suggested the cascade of emails from the BendonAdams team gave them an advantage over the other applicants. He did not identify BendonAdams by its name.

“Does this outcome look commensurate with our expectations for ourselves and the process? No, I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “This is not a fair outcome. The process was inherently fair and was designed to run commensurate with City Council’s expectations and with staff’s typical processes, and this is the process that the development community desired, which we learned through our outreach initiatives during the moratorium process.”

The volume of emails strained city IT and administrative teams, Supino said.

“There’s really two systems in play here,” he said. “There’s our administrative system and the IT systems, and those are the IT systems of the applicants as well as of the city. And our administrative system, the human system, has been significantly taxed by the strategy deployed by specific applicants insofar as we have dedicated dozens of hours of staff time between planning, legal and IT in order to make sense of individual emails, make sense of the overall volume as well as the sequencing of emails, and associating them with different applications.

“That is a significant drain of city resources, which would normally and I think out to be dedicated to serving all of our customers. On the IT side, we are exploring additional data that might be useful to us in rendering a final decision about the completeness and the timing of all of the applications.”