Historical society reels from city’s thumbs-down
Convincing voters to approve a property tax for the Aspen Historical Society has become even more pressing, according to its director, now that the City Council has quashed the struggling organization’s other hoped-for influx of revenue.”Because we have nothing. We thought we had something,” a frustrated Georgia Hanson, the society’s executive director, said on Wednesday, a day after the council nixed a plan to subdivide a piece of the Wheeler/Stallard House Museum grounds and sell development rights off the property.The society is now focusing on the Nov. 1 election and the fate of Referendum 5D, which would establish a special taxing district to support the society’s operations.The board of trustees will convene to discuss the outcome of Tuesday’s council decision after the election, Hanson predicted.”It’s a setback, for sure,” said Dwayne Romero, the board’s vice president, who watched the council proceedings on television in “total disbelief.””We were quite surprised – that’s an understatement,” he said.The plan to create and sell transferable development rights off the museum parcel met all the requirements of the city’s code, trustees noted.”It was so totally unexpected,” said Jackie Kasabach, board president. “We received very positive feedback every step of the way in the city process.””I am totally disheartened by the council decision. Can’t they understand that the historical society is fighting for its life? And our history is what makes Aspen so different from all other ski towns,” said Mary Hayes, a board member and columnist for The Aspen Times.”I did not understand, if we met all the criteria, that there was any controversy here,” Hanson added. “I feel very strongly that the system is broken if we can get that far, with that much support, and not have a clue that this was coming.”The Planning and Zoning Commission and city planning staff both recommended approval of the plan to create 16 TDRs from the museum property. The TDRs could be sold and converted into development rights of 250 square feet per TDR for other residential properties that have already maxed out their allowable square footage. The sale of the development rights would sterilize the museum parcel from development, in effect preserving its stately grounds. The council created the TDR option for historic properties.The historical society anticipated selling five TDRs for $60,000 apiece to prospective buyers and planned to hold onto the rest, at least initially. In its dreams, the organization hoped to recoup $1.5 million from the TDRs, which would allow it, among other things, to pay off internal debts – loans it has made from within its own funds to cover operational expenses, according to Hanson.Ultimately, the society is pinning its hopes on formation of the taxing district to provide a sustainable operating fund.Among the council’s concerns was that the late Elizabeth Paepcke, who at one time owned the Wheeler/Stallard House with her husband, Walter, would not have wanted the land subdivided.Hanson called the assumption “preposterous,” noting that Paepcke made support of the nonprofits she favored a priority.”I feel stupid trying to speak for Elizabeth Paepcke, though, unlike all of them [the council], I did know her,” Hanson said.The society actually acquired the Wheeler/Stallard House from an insurance trust that held pieces of the Paepcke estate. Covenants on the property dictate that it be used for museum or park purposes. The West End museum and carriage house are surrounded by expansive grounds, occupying nearly an entire city block.Given the covenants, the creation of TDRs would create additional value that wouldn’t otherwise exist, Councilwoman Rachel Richards reasoned on Tuesday.But Romero said he isn’t sure how the sale of TDRs and preservation of the property conflicts with the covenants.Kasabach offered a different perspective: “I have to say, I can understand where the council members were coming from – I don’t agree with them.”The board of trustees looked hard at the future of the museum property before pursuing the TDR plan, as the sale of the TDRs would prevent any future expansion of the facility, she added.”Our board went through that exercise – do we really want to sell those rights?” Kasabach said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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