Gorsuch faces zoning battle despite heavy hitters’ support
Some heavy hitters have gone to bat for the Gorsuch Haus in public meetings, but so far compliance with Aspen’s land-use plan has trumped the developer’s pedigree during the first round of review.
The majority of speakers at both the July 5 and Tuesday planning commission meetings spoke in favor of the Gorsuch Haus, a 67,781-square-foot hotel proposed by Jeff Gorsuch and his partners in Norway Island LLC. Some speakers also suggested the project should be approved because Gorsuch’s family has longtime ties with Aspen and Jeff Gorsuch does a lot for the community.
Gorsuch is a partner in Norway Island LLC along with Bryan Peterson and Lowe Enterprises. Norway Island has an option to buy the property needed for the hotel from Aspen Skiing Co.
Supporters at the hearings included longtime Aspen businessmen Dick Butera and Bob Starodoj, who raised a similar theme. They noted that the proposal for The Little Nell hotel created a land-use battle in the mid-1980s and barely got approved. The hotel and Silver Queen Gondola infused Aspen with new vitality, they said. They favor Gorsuch Haus because they feel it will revitalize the west side of the base area.
Jim Cardamone told the planning commission Tuesday that some project will be built at the western base “sooner or later.”
“These are the guys to do it,” he said.
Davenport, Smalls support hotel
Chris Davenport, a two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion and renowned ski mountaineer, wrote a lengthy guest opinion in Aspen’s newspapers supporting the project. Aspen native and former ski racer Ryan Smalls spoke in favor of the project Tuesday.
Support also came from less likely corners. Activists and development watchdogs Marcia Goshorn and Ward Hauenstein spoke in favor of Gorsuch Haus. The longtime Aspen residents launched a petition drive last year to force the Aspen City Council to either rescind its approval of developer Mark Hunt’s Base2 Lodge or refer it to voters. It went to an election and voters soundly defeated Hunt’s proposal.
Two separate sources, who requested anonymity, said Gorsuch has been soliciting business associates and friends to speak in favor of his project.
There also has been widespread opposition, particularly in the letters to the editors of local newspaper. However, opponents haven’t turned out in force to the planning commission meetings.
One foe, Michael Brown, a partner in the proposed Lift One Lodge just downslope from Gorsuch House, told the planning commission July 5 that the proposal wouldn’t garner any community support if it had been proposed by an out-of-town developer. He urged the board to stick to the land-use code and not give any special consideration to Gorsuch.
No hometown break
The city of Aspen has given no indication of giving a hometown break. A memo from the planning staff sounded numerous alarms about the project. The majority of the planning commission concurred with most of the concerns at its meeting Tuesday.
The proposed project features 62 hotel rooms, six free-market residences and slightly more than 9,000 square feet for commercial uses such as a restaurant, Skico offices and some retail.
The Norway Island partners realize that the Aspen land-use review process is more than a popularity contest, so they also made the pitch that Gorsuch Haus compares favorably in size with some of Aspen’s signature tourist accommodations.
Richard Shaw of Design Workshop, part of the Gorsuch team, showed the planning commission a slide Tuesday that compared the square footage, lot size, zoning, heights and other specifications of six other hotels in Aspen. For comparison, Design Workshop used The Little Nell, Residences at the Little Nell, Sky Hotel, North of Nell and the proposed Lift One Lodge (see related graph).
Although they didn’t take a formal vote Tuesday, planning commission members shared their thoughts on the project. The general sentiment was that the site is appropriate for a hotel — just not one of the size proposed. Concerns about the mass and size dominated the discussion.
Zoning decision looms large
The Gorsuch team wants the zoning for the site changed to SKI. The city planning staff noted that the SKI zoning district would allow substantially more development than the lodge zone district.
If zoned lodge, Gorsuch Haus would be limited to between about 27,000 and 36,000 square feet as opposed to the 67,7821 square feet proposed, according to a memo prepared by Jennifer Phelan, deputy planning director for the city.
The lodge zoning also would allow a maximum height of 28 feet. The proposal’s maximum height is 49 feet with an average of 37 feet.
“The height of the building is out of scale with the surrounding context and exceeds what would be permitted in both the (Conservation) and (Lodge) zone districts,” Phelan wrote.
The property is currently zoned Conservation, though that isn’t necessarily meant to prevent development. The property at the bottom terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola was zoned conservation prior to the lift’s approval in July 1986. Conservation zoning would allow construction of four large houses on the property.
Planning commission members said they would like to see Gorsuch Haus blend in with the surrounding neighborhood. The Gorsuch team said it would consider refinements and return to the planning commission Aug. 16.
After the planning commission makes an advisory vote, the proposal will advance to the Aspen City Council, where public hearings are usually more heavily attended and spirited.
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