Lenado landowners ponder historic preservation effort
October 21, 2011
ASPEN – Lenado, the one-time mining community that evolved into a thriving sawmill operation and then into a funky enclave of hippies living off the grid, has largely managed to withstand the development pressures that have transformed other areas of Pitkin County.
Now, some owners of the funky collection of cabins, located up the narrow dirt road east out of Woody Creek, are willing to commit to preserving their pieces of Lenado history and have proposed a historic district for the remote townsite. In return, they’re looking to take advantage of the incentives offered by the county to encourage the preservation and repair of historic structures.
Several Lenado property owners, represented by land-use planner Doug Pratte, pitched their ideas to county commissioners during an informal discussion Tuesday. Commissioners were keen on preserving Lenado but leery of potential new development there.
“I don’t know anyone who’s been up there who doesn’t have a dear spot in their heart for Lenado,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards.
Lenado’s historic significance, according to county historic preservation officer Suzannah Reid, is in the sum of its eclectic parts, which include a few buildings that date back to its founding when A.J. Varney staked his Last Chance mining claim there in 1881. Other structures were built during its heyday as a sawmill, from 1937-75. Cabins from the hippie era, pegged at 1970-75, are older structures that more recent denizens modified.
“The best hippie example is the Strauss cabin. It’s really interesting,” Pratte told commissioners. What was originally a log cabin built in 1885 now boasts some undeniably imaginative home improvements, constructed with what appears to be salvaged material. “They do look a little ramshackle,” he said of the add-ons.
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“Lenado represents a concentrated set of buildings that are unique to a time and place and are difficult to recognize as individuals,” Reid wrote in a memo to commissioners.
“When you get them all together, they all rise to another level of importance,” she said Tuesday.
Of 21 historic buildings there, nine are inhabited year-round or seasonally. The rest are unoccupied and range in condition from habitable to in ruins, Reid noted in her memo.
Creating a historic district (Redstone is the only existing such district in the county) would not have to come with regulations that force property owners to preserve their cabins and submit every alteration to a formal review, according to Reid. However, some cabin owners are willing to place their buildings on the county’s historic register – a step that would ensure their preservation.
A proposed first phase would designate as historic five key buildings that represent the “core” of Lenado, according to property owner Daniel Delano. In return, he is seeking an additional 1,750 square feet for his non-historic Lenado home. The proposal also calls for the granting of three TDRs, or transferable development rights, to three other cabin owners willing to designate their buildings as historic.
“We would register those first five with the county,” Delano said. “Right now, all of those could be torn down.”
A second phase would protect as many as 11 more historic structures, though one has already toppled, in exchange for five TDRs. In addition, Delano would limit the size of any additional residential development on the 92-acre Last Chance parcel as part of a phase 2 application.
Commissioners, however, voiced concerns about how the TDRs would be used and about establishing a historic district without unanimous support from Lenado’s property owners, even if the district doesn’t impose regulatory restrictions.
“For me, it seems like the only way for that to work is to have 100 percent buy-in from all the landowners there,” said Commissioner George Newman.
Richards wondered if landowners would use the TDRs, which the county can grant as an incentive to preserve and protect a historic building, for new construction in Lenado. A TDR is worth 2,500 square feet, but a cabin owner could sell the TDR to someone else and pocket the profit. The buyer would gain the added building space, above what the county code allows, with the TDR purchase.
The prospect of using TDRs for additional square footage in Lenado troubled some commissioners.
“We shouldn’t have new development there,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield, though Delano pointed out that cabin owners likely have the right to some additional square footage under the code right now.
“I support Lenado being preserved, but this also implies some development. I’m having some trouble with that,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said.
Delano said he and fellow landowner Frank Peters don’t anticipate building large, new homes in Lenado, but would perhaps develop one or two “cabin-size” residences on their Last Chance parcel.
Richards said she would consider some level of new development acceptable.
“What I’m most troubled with is the size, scale, compatibility – so you don’t destroy the village while you’re trying to save it.”
Pitkin County’s historic preservation code allows would-be project applicants to discuss their ideas with commissioners informally before submitting a land-use application. Delano and Pratte indicated that they might seek another such meeting to address the concerns expressed Tuesday before pursuing a formal application.