Embattled Ireland never one to walk away from fight | AspenTimes.com

Embattled Ireland never one to walk away from fight

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Mick Ireland is probably one of the most controversial politicians ever to serve in Pitkin County.

In nine years on the Board of County Commissioners, his opponents have attempted to remove him from office with a recall election no less than four times. Twice, in 1996 and in 2000, they have managed to gather enough signatures to force an election, but not enough votes to remove him from office.

Both of the recall elections had their roots in the land-use code, first over rural and remote zoning passed to limit development in the backcountry, and then over the partially successful attempt to make residential development pay for its effects on the local economy. Ireland has been a steady advocate of slow growth and willing to take developers on at every turn.

But another theme ? manners ? also played heavily in both recall campaigns. Many think he is rude and mean.

Meredith resident Dave LaMont spearheaded a petition drive against four county commissioners in late 1995 and early 1996 after they limited backcountry development to 1,000-square-foot cabins by implementing rural and remote zoning. But his real beef was with Ireland and then-commissioner Wayne Ethridge. LaMont accused both of “pompous, abusive and dictatorial behavior” during the public hearings.

“Our issue is, and will remain, the Rural and Remote ordinance, as well as the reprehensible conduct of Mr. Ireland and Mr. Ethridge, during the public hearings,” wrote LaMont, a Meredith resident and landowner, in a guest editorial published in January 1995.

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Ireland and one other commissioner (not Wayne Ethridge) survived the rural and remote recall.

In early 2000, a second major effort against Ireland was launched by land-use attorneys, developers and builders affected by a six-month moratorium on new development applications. The county commissioners adopted the moratorium so they and the county planning staff could work on major changes to the land-use code.

Millard Zimet, a local attorney, was the initial spokesman in the campaign to recall Ireland. In a March 2000 letter to the editor, Zimet outlined his reasons for getting involved:

“Before the recall process started, I had heard from many people that they were afraid of Mick Ireland. Now that the recall has started and petitions are being circulated, a very large number of people are afraid to sign the petitions because they fear that Mick Ireland will have retribution upon them (or their clients) if they sign.

“It is really sad that this community is willing to tolerate that level of intimidation from a public servant.

“To quote a local poet: ‘If Pitkin County politics make you sick, gather together and recall Mick.'”

Except for his first election to the Board of County Commissioners in 1994, when he beat fourth-generation local Max Marolt by about 50 votes, Ireland has won every election with support from about 60 percent of the electorate.

Asked if he is rude, Ireland said, “I don’t think I am. I can be passionate about a subject. I’m deeply committed to certain issues.”

He continued: “I think people should be outraged about some of the things going on locally and around the country.”

@ATD Sub heds:Environment, housing, transportation

@ATD body copy: “When I first ran in 1994 ? I’ve still got my campaign literature from the time ? I promised to work on managing growth, building housing and protecting the environment,” Ireland said in an interview earlier this month.

“We’ve made progress in all three areas but I don’t want to see any retreat from that progress, and there are additional things we can do.”

Perhaps Ireland’s most influential work in the area of environmental protection came in 1995, when the county enacted rural and remote zoning.

The number of wealthy people wanting large homes in what most consider the backcountry increased sharply in the years leading up to the adoption of rural and remote zoning. The commissioners at the time agreed that something needed to be done to stem growing demand for large homes in the wilderness for primarily two reasons: the environment and the cost of providing services such as police, fire protection and road maintenance.

To ensure that lots and mining claims in remote areas such as the backside of Aspen Mountain or the upper reaches of the Fryingpan River didn’t become entirely worthless, the commissioners gave the owners a choice ? either build a cabin, without electricity or road access, up to 1,000 square feet, or sell the development rights of your land and sterilize it permanently.

By the time the rural and remote legislation was ready for hearings and consideration, a sizable opposition had formed, but Ireland and his colleagues withstood the pressure to leave things as they were. Development pressures in remote areas have diminished considerably as a result.

Ireland spent years as the county commissioner representative to the Aspen/Pitkin County Housing Authority, and he has been a tireless supporter of both the purchase and construction of affordable housing projects.

But since the early 1990s, most of the housing action has been inside Aspen’s city limits.

If anything, the affordable housing program in the county has been retreating since around the time Ireland was first elected in 1994.

Efforts to build affordable housing on the privately owned W/J Ranch and publicly owned Aspen Mass have been killed by community objections. Attempts to build a relatively small project at Stillwater near Mountain Valley have ground down over the objections of a single neighbor. Ireland’s fellow commissioners have lately seen fit to exempt a growing number of developments from affordable housing regulations.

And earlier this year, the city of Aspen, which has more money to spend on housing, exerted considerable influence over the reorganization of the Housing Authority.

The only small successes have been the Pitkin Iron project near Aspen Village and the purchase of the Woody Creek Trailer Park.

One area in which Ireland has been particularly successful and influential is transportation. He played a role in the formation of a rural transportation authority (now known as Roaring Fork Transportation Authority), the multijurisdictional agency created with the equipment and personnel of the old Roaring Fork Transit Agency and tax support from seven of eight jurisdictions in the valley.

The new RFTA has expanded the frequency of bus service and the reach of the system, in spite of the recession.

Ireland has also been a regular on the State Transportation Advisory Committee, a monthly gathering of elected officials from around the state who advise the Colorado Transportation Commission, the gubernatorially appointed board that oversees the Colorado Department of Transportation. His work on the advisory committee most recently positioned the Roaring Fork Valley at the top of the list for $1.5 billion in state money earmarked for public transit projects.

Ireland is also credited with putting together the funding plan that allowed the roundabout at Maroon Creek Road to be built years sooner than scheduled. Most people consider the roundabout a huge success in eliminating the traffic jams caused by the traffic light it replaced.

@ATD Sub heds:It’s all connected

@ATD body copy: Perhaps one of the things that separates Ireland from his colleagues on the current commission is his willingness to state, repeat and reiterate his beliefs over and over, even when it appears no one is listening.

For the past four years, Ireland has made it known at every opportunity that he thinks the county and the city should be building more housing, not less, to protect both the community and the environment.

“I don’t think sweeping employees under the rug ? or down the valley, as it may be ? reduces economic activity in Aspen. But it does increase pollution,” he said.

“And you can’t have small-town character without small-town characters.”

Ireland has said more than once that he plans to back off his efforts to reform the land-use code. Both of the last two efforts, in 2000 and 2002, have been disappointments in the end for Ireland. But he thinks another term as a county commissioner will allow him to continue advocating for more affordable housing. And he promises more attempts to convince his colleagues that large homes should be required to at least pay their own way.

“An important aspect of what I do as a county commissioner is bring issues to light,” he said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]

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