Freeze on residential development in Aspen sails through approval

Aspen City Council unanimously approves moratorium on development throughout city limits

Concerned residents and business owners pack into Aspen City Council chambers on Wednesday before elected officials approved a moratorium on residential development.
The Aspen Times

A roomful of Aspen residents, real estate agents and vacation rental representatives failed on Wednesday to persuade Aspen City Council to back off from a moratorium that bans new residential development for up to six months.

In a special meeting, council voted 5-0 on second reading of an emergency ordinance, which took effect immediately on Wednesday evening after the 9:45 p.m. decision.

That’s despite those in the industry calling the move an abuse of power and of the process, a knee-jerk reaction, communism, throwing the baby out with the bath water and questioning what the actual emergency is.

“The city is swinging a sledgehammer when you should be using a scalpel and should be deliberative and not impulsive,” said local attorney Chris Bryan, who works for Garfield and Hecht, PC. “This type of regulation perversely harms the people you say you want to protect and support, the middle class suffers, the workforce will be harmed … I will guarantee you this, it will be lucrative for the lawyers.”

Bryan was one of dozens of people who spoke during public comment, which lasted nearly two hours and drew a standing-room only crowd in council chambers and over 100 people on the WebEx virtual meeting platform.

The temporary moratorium, introduced by surprise and with little public discussion during council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, is focused on new land use applications affecting residential uses in all zone districts within the city that meet the definition of demolition, or would have the effect of increasing the height, gross square footage, net leasable or net livable area of any building.

The ban is in response to the real estate market explosion in Aspen over the past two years, and the proliferation of short-term rentals in single-family homes and condos.

Those who represent landowners and homeowners, like developers, land planners and architects, said council’s action will decimate an entire industry and affect hundreds of people’s livelihoods, particularly in the construction industry.

“If you vote yes for a moratorium tonight, I would ask you to suspend your salaries from this city until you resolve it and the moratorium is lifted,” said Bob Bowden, a luxury home builder and real estate agent. “Feel the pain.”

City officials argued that the impacts of speculative real estate activity is putting negative pressures on the local workforce, available housing, traffic, the environment and the quality of life that is emulated in the Aspen Area Community Plan, which is a guiding document that is used to make policy decisions.

“The fabric of my community is not for sale,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein.

The pause on residential development for up to six months and the issuance of permits on short-term rentals for up to nine months is to allow city officials to assess how current land use code regulations, the AACP and the affordable housing program matches with the unprecedented growth and the changing use in the local real estate market.

Exemptions to the moratorium include land-use applications already submitted prior to Wednesday night’s vote, as well as submittals for projects that are 100% affordable housing or are part of the city’s historic preservation program.

Land use applications that do not seek to increase square footage, or the height of a building, or building permits for commercial and lodge development as stand-alone uses on a parcel are exempt from the moratorium.

Ordinance 27, which was passed by council on Wednesday, cites that recent land use applications do not appear to be consistent with the 2012 AACP, which is the last time the document was updated.

Some of the elements in the AACP include preserving Aspen’s unique community character; aggressively pursuing measures to ensure the needs of the community are met; limiting the burden on public infrastructure and ongoing public operating costs; and reducing short- and long-term job generation impacts, such as traffic congestion and demand for affordable housing.

City officials said that short-term rentals and vacation homes for wealthy individuals impact neighborhoods with transient activity, more car trips and have become employment centers necessitating several workers to serve the needs of the guests and residents.

“We’re looking at $750 million of current permit valuations in the queue, that is $750 million worth of construction that is titled residential but is likely going to be unmitigated lodging,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards. “I personally don’t believe that this will create a lot of affordable housing, or the people who buy a $3 million condo or home are going to rent a ski bum.

“This is about the continued community impacts that will continue to get worse,” she continued. “I think this is the last question of whether Aspen is a community or is it a commodity.”

The AACP includes policies that direct the city to address affordable housing, including ensuring that the planned development process results in tangible, long-term community benefits and does not degrade the built or natural environment through mass and scale that exceeds land use code standards.

“A pause in certain types of residential development is necessary in order to assess the current state of the affordable housing program, assess gaps and opportunities in the regulations and delivery of units relative to need, and consider future community needs in the housing sector in the context of larger land use code issues,” Ordinance 27 reads. “A moratorium through an emergency ordinance on all development applications will enable a reasoned discussion and consideration of desired amendments to the land use code without creating a rush of development applications and the related impacts upon the community.

Mayor Torre said it’s not council’s intention to harm people’s livelihoods or damage people’s property values.

“This is not going to last, we are going to get out of this,” he said. “We’re going to be doing something that strengthens our community going forward. I am elected up here to do the best I can for my entire community and I don’t go into this lightly and I wouldn’t be considering this at all if I thought that it wasn’t in the best interest.”