Former mayor Stacy Standley, father of Aspen growth control, dismayed by Aspen Art Museum
The mayor who introduced growth control to Aspen in 1973 says the new art museum is exactly the type of development he and many town residents fought so hard to prevent.
Stacy Standley said he has no prejudice against anyone involved in the project. His problem rests solely with the building.
“Purely the shape — lot line to lot line, square box,” Standley said.
The museum makes no acknowledgment of Aspen’s historic past, he said. In fact, it “took the essence of downtown and stomped it out,” he claimed.
Standley became the father of Aspen growth control after an improbable victory in a crowded field of mayoral candidates in May 1973. The then-28-year-old bartender found himself in office trying to coax a split seven-member council to enact laws that would deliver his campaign promise to “tame the growth gorilla.”
Standley first came to Aspen in 1965 and, like many others, fell in love with the town and its special environment. One of many simple pleasures, he said, was grabbing lunch on a sunny winter day and finding a place to hang out with friends and watch skiers come down the mountain.
“In the late ‘60s, there were a lot of empty lots,” he said.
But that was rapidly changing as Aspen’s tourism industry cranked up. The construction of the North of Nell Condominiums on Durant Avenue and the Aspen Square on Cooper Avenue triggered heated community debate.
Standley befriended lots of Aspenites his age who were more concerned about the fate of the town than the ability of old timers to cash in with land sales to developers. Future Aspen Times reporter and Editor Andy Stone and future Aspen Mayor John Bennett were among his fellow activists.
“Somewhere along the way, probably over too many beers, we decided we wanted to ‘save Aspen,’” Standley said.
He and his cohorts formed a group called COPE, which stood for the Community Organization for a Planned Environment. It also was a medicine used by women to ease pains from menstruation, thus leading the Aspen group’s battle cry, “Take COPE for Aspen’s headache.”
COPE received a grant and a green light in the early 1970s to perform an analysis on how many units and residents would be added to the upper Roaring Fork Valley with full build-out under the existing zoning. It was around 240,000, as Standley recalls.
COPE members went on to help Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman win office as Pitkin County commissioners on an anti-growth platform in 1972. But Aspen politics were still controlled by an old guard more accommodating of growth and development.
Standley was among a slate of candidates determined to run for council in 1973. They were largely thwarted when city officials enacted a residency requirement of at least three years for a candidate.
“I didn’t run because I was the most qualified. I was the most legal,” Standley said. And he was the only one of his group to qualify. His group decided to aim high and thrust him into the mayor’s race rather than merely a council seat.
Bennett and Stone helped run his campaign. John Denver was the first contributor. KNCB Moore designed a knock-off King Kong poster that urged voters to tame the growth gorilla. That also was the theme of street theater central to Standley’s campaign. He dressed a female supporter in a gorilla suit. She rode in a yellow Cadillac convertible with contractor Paul Hamwi. The duo would pull up to an empty downtown lot in Aspen and pretend they were going over a development plan. Standley and his backers would rush in and drive the growth gorilla and ruthless developer away.
It was good fun with a serious message.
“Aspen really needs to get a handle, or we’re going to destroy the town we love,” Standley said, condensing his theme of 41 years ago.
He and his supporters had no idea if they would win. The field included ski patroller Ross Griffin, blacksmith Francis Whitaker, hippie hater Guido Meyer, Jay Cowan and Joseph Brugert. They came from all philosophical niches.
Standley said the outrage over the development of big, boxy buildings tilted the race in his favor. Respected Aspenites such as Fritz Benedict and Charlie Hopton endorsed him prior to the vote. Aspen Times Editor Bil Dunaway kept his preference hidden until shortly before election day.
“Damn if Dunaway didn’t come out and endorse me,” Standley said.
Standley received 427 votes. Griffin was next-highest with 254.
The first ordinance passed by the new council was one protecting trees wider than 6 inches from being chopped down.
Standley earned a reputation for delivering on campaign promises. Various growth-control measures such as height limits and setbacks were approved. The central idea behind all the complicated rules was simple — protect the views of Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass, Standley said.
Voters responded favorably to his efforts. Standley defeated Robert “Bugsy” Barnard by a 64 to 36 percent margin in 1975. He won a final term in 1977 by beating Phil Sullivan by a 69 to 31 percent margin.
Developers didn’t respond as favorably. The city faced numerous lawsuits for downzoning and alleged taking of property rights. Standley credits Sandra Stuller, the city attorney at the time, for standing up to the hired guns.
“We never lost a lawsuit while I was in office,” he said.
(Colorado property laws have since been changed to make it tougher for local governments to justify “takings.”)
Standley looks at the museum and other large buildings recently constructed or under construction in Aspen today and wonders what happened. The city, he claimed, “completely abrogated responsibilities.”
Standley travels frequently on business to India and calls Las Vegas home, which he acknowledges is a far cry from Aspen. But it also is easier to witness changes when you’re not so connected to the community, as is his case with Vegas, he said. He visits Aspen for varying lengths of time every summer.
He doesn’t feel his efforts for six years as mayor went for naught.
“What we had is better than we could have had,” he said.
But he finds it ironic that Aspen is once again battling a proliferation of big boxes, as if lessons weren’t learned.
“They change the whole feel of the historic nature of Aspen,” Standley said.
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Pitkin County public health officials are working toward opening a free, drive-through COVID -19 testing site in Aspen that will not require a doctor’s prescription.