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Historic homeowner faces costly sanctions

Janet Urquhart

A West End homeowner may have to start over with the renovation of his miner’s cottage rather than pay a hefty fine for destroying the historic integrity of the building.

Aspen’s Historic Preservation Commission has been wrestling with what sanctions to seek against homeowner Ron Schelling for his infractions. The commission is now leaning toward revoking the home’s landmark status, as well as the variances he was granted for the renovation.

That means the project will require some redesign; foundation work that has already been done will have to be redone. The variances Schelling was originally granted for the project allowed him to build closer to his lot lines than the city code would typically allow. The variances are offered as an incentive for property owners who seek landmark status for their buildings.

The latest tack in penalizing Schelling came up in an HPC discussion Wednesday. Attorney Tim Whitsitt, hired as an outside counsel to advise the commission in the case, told the HPC it does not have the power to levy a fine for violations.

Last month, the HPC voted to recommend Schelling pay a $250,000 fine or face a three-year moratorium on the renovation of his house at 213 W. Bleeker St. The City Council has the final say in the matter.

“Your ability to levy a fine in this case is extremely limited,” Whitsitt told the HPC after researching the issue. “Quite frankly, under the Aspen code, you may not have any discretion to levy a fine.”

The HPC does have the power to recommend a construction freeze of up to five years, and could suggest the council negotiate a payment in lieu of a moratorium rather than an outright fine, Whitsitt said.

Attorney Doug Allen, representing Ron and Lori Schelling, pleaded on their behalf Wednesday. He called a $250,000 fine “disproportionate” to the offense.

“He is not rich by any means,” Allen said. “This is going to bankrupt him, this $250,000. He can’t afford it.”

Allen said his clients currently reside in Chicago, but plan to live in the West End home.

Renovation of the home received HPC approval. But Schelling, who was the contractor on the job, went beyond what was authorized after a miscommunication with his architect led him to believe the additional work had been approved, according to Allen.

The city has “red-tagged” the property, halting work on the renovation while the HPC reviews the case.

Last month, HPC members indicated they wanted to impose a significant penalty to send the message that such actions won’t be taken lightly.

HPC member Gilbert Sanchez yesterday suggested revoking both the home’s landmark status and the variances that were gained as a result of that designation. Such a move could result in the impacts the commission is looking for, he said.

“They’ll need to go back and essentially redesign,” he said. “If they’re having to go back to square one, that’s a good penalty. There’s no longer a historic landmark there, so the variances should go away.”

“I think the variance thing is the strongest penalty as well,” agreed Suzannah Reid, HPC chairwoman.

The cottage’s landmark status could be revoked without removing the property from the HPC’s historic inventory, added Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer. A historic shed on the property would allow the city to maintain historic protections on the site, she said. That would keep an owner from tearing the house down altogether and building something new.

Landmark status is an additional historic designation property owners may seek for buildings that have been listed on the city’s historic inventory.

HPC members indicated they would like to know the financial implications of revoking the variances, which would reduce the footprint of the home wherever it would extend into the yard setbacks.

Because Schelling was not building out to the maximum floor area allowed at the site, eliminating the variances would not necessarily reduce the square footage of the home, Allen pointed out.

The matter will be back before the HPC on Feb. 14.


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