Land-use issues lack sex appeal, but they are key
Aspen, CO Colorado
The issues surrounding Aspen’s land-use code, the Aspen Area Community Plan and limitations on development are of great concern to a diverse and vocal minority of preservationists, developers, business owners and managers, elected officials and government policy wonks.
The moneymakers want things a certain way, and the anti-growth crowd does its best to fight them, often ending up on the losing side. Officials usually have sought the middle ground but often are unable to find one. It’s been this way for as long as we can remember.
To the average Aspenite, frankly, the debate lacks zest and intrigue. There’s just no sex appeal when it comes to discussions of floor-area ratio, building heights, affordable-housing mitigation and parking requirements. Discussions often are bogged down in such a tedious process to the point where people lose interest. Press them further, and you’ll find out that the average resident or worker bee does care enough to say they wouldn’t want Aspen to become another Vail, where the buildings are so gargantuan and feature such generic exteriors you can’t really get a feel for the town’s character. But the process leaves many people bored.
Discussions now are beginning in earnest about changing Aspen’s land-use code so that it conforms with the community’s wishes, as expressed through the recently completed Aspen Area Community Plan, a guiding document that will shape future decisions on development and other issues. Basically, a majority of Aspen council members believes that the city’s “infill legislation,” approved around eight years ago as a way of softening restrictions on development to stimulate growth, went too far. Infill has led to what some consider to be poor decisions by the city, including approval of the Aspen Art Museum project at the corner of South Spring Street and East Hyman Avenue and, more recently, the blessing of a new three-story building (with a 6,900-square-foot penthouse) at the corner of East Hyman Avenue and South Hunter Street.
In both cases, the city felt that its hands were tied by infill regulations that made both projects possible and the threat of expensive litigation had it tried to fight the developers’ wishes. Without more stringent development regulations in place, the city had no legal leg on which to stand. In the case of the large building with the penthouse, approved less than two weeks ago, the case was made that the deal was a trade-off for saving the Little Annie’s and Benton buildings next door from demolition. But the historical value of the Annie’s building was negligible, at best, and one has to wonder whether the community got the raw end of the trade.
We hope council members mean what they say when they talk about tightening the land-use code. At a recent meeting, Councilman Steve Skadron said that no developer should come to the council in the future and ask for a building that rises higher than 28 feet. The current limit is 42 feet, with another 10 feet allowed for mechanical equipment, such as elevator shafts. Also, Mayor Mick Ireland circulated a memo to his council cohorts with a host of suggestions, including lowering the maximum limits on height, scale and mass, and removing the “high-end speculative real estate” component from the downtown commercial core.
It remains to be seen if the other three council members will fall into line with their sentiments. Many more meetings will be held on these and related matters, including a public hearing at Monday’s regular meeting on the community plan. It would be nice if the average Aspenite, aside from the usual suspects, turned out in force to make their concerns known that Aspen should do all that it can to preserve what it has, stifle big-box projects and keep the city from looking like the interstate stop that is its Eagle County cousin a mere 102 miles’ drive away.
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