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Limit on new jobs proposed

Two prominent committees working independently in Aspen have reached the same major conclusion – the upper Roaring Fork Valley must take a serious look at limiting new jobs.

A group convened by the think tank Aspen Institute spent more than a year studying the employee-housing issue and concluded the demand side of the equation has to be addressed.

“You cannot build yourself out of the affordable-housing problem,” said Jim Curtis, a local land-use planner who co-chaired the Aspen Institute Community Forum’s Task Force on Affordable Housing.

“You can’t look at just the supply-side issues and you can’t look at just the demand-side issues,” said John Sarpa, an Aspen businessman who was the other co-chair of the Institute’s committee. “You’ll screw something up real quick.”

Civic leaders of another group, the Oversight Committee of the Aspen Area Community Plan, have also determined after months of work that “there is a need to limit job growth.”

That group, which includes several upper-valley elected officials, reached the conclusion after pondering the growth the upper valley faces. That group also believes the Aspen “metro” area’s ultimate population should be capped at around 27,000 to 30,000 people. Institute lends credence The Aspen Institute committee’s willingness to ponder job limits seems to lend credence to an issue that would otherwise be too hot for local governments to handle.

Sarpa said the committee members have diverse backgrounds and overall he labeled it “moderate” on the political scale. Sarpa himself headed the efforts to get The Ritz-Carlton hotel, now the St. Regis, approved in a vicious political battle in the early 1990s.

Ironically, his co-chair on the Institute committee was one of Sarpa’s primary foes in that hotel fight. But Curtis and Sarpa put past differences aside to try to tackle the community’s affordable housing dilemmas.

The main group of the Institute committee had about 25 members. A sub-group that really dived into the issues had eight members, including Tom Baker, Bob Elmore, Michael Kinsley, Marcella Larsen, Dave Myler and Rachel Richards, in addition to Sarpa and Curtis.

The Institute convened the group with a request to consider affordable-housing issues that weren’t being studied by other groups. To do that, Sarpa said, the sub-group went through a “scenario-building process” that was developed by oil companies to weigh issues, try to anticipate implications and decide whether to make investments.

They concluded the upper valley must try to tackle its affordable-housing problem now since there is a strong economy and powerful governments. Either or both conditions could change and complicate solutions to providing affordable housing, Sarpa said. `Heretical’ in eyes of some After months of looking at potential actions that could be taken and the results they could produce, the Institute group decided a public-private partnership was needed to make a dent in the affordable housing problem, Sarpa said.

The governments must lead and induce the private sector to participate. One suggestion was to allow both sectors to make appointments to the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority Board of Directors. Now just the governments appoint members.

Sarpa acknowledged the most eye-catching conclusion of the Institute’s committee was a recommendation of “exploring the ways and means of managing the size and composition of the work force.”

Some locals would see it as an “heretical comment,” he said. The committee didn’t want “knee-jerk reactions” that would spark the usual growth vs. no-growth battles. So it advised hiring a person to “work behind the scenes” to pitch the idea to groups such as the Board of Realtors, construction companies, the Aspen Skiing Co. and the resort associations. Easier said than done The problem with limiting the work force – thus easing the demand for housing – is the difficulty.

“It’s a very easy thing to say,” said Curtis. “It’s a tough thing to say what will it mean and how will we get there.”

Even if a mechanism can be figured out, it would take years to implement. Limiting jobs in one year could have dire consequences for the economy, Curtis warned.

While it didn’t reach any conclusions on how to limit size and composition of the work force, the committee did eliminate some ideas. It shouldn’t be attempted through drastic measures like limiting business opportunities, work permits or “taxing the right to work,” Sarpa said.

But ideas that survived included beefed-up land-use restrictions, such as house-size limits and stricter limits on commercial and residential building.

Other ideas concentrated on regulating or taxing sectors of the economy that are currently unregulated. Examples would be building permit quotas, expensive business permits and a service sales tax.

A final area of methods to consider were providing incentives for businesses and government to downsize.

Community planners impressed

Citizens and government officials working on the Aspen Area Community Plan – a blueprint to where the upper valley is headed – may pick up where the Institute’s committee left off.

Sarpa and Curtis explained the Institute committee’s work to the community planners this week and generally received praise for their efforts.

Aspen Mayor John Bennett said the AACP Oversight Committee hadn’t reached the same level of detail as the Institute committee.

“This is the next dimension of this work,” he said. While few if any communities are known to be trying to limit jobs, Aspen could be a leader in the area, just as its affordable housing efforts are used as a model, he said.

Oversight Committee members particularly liked the idea of hiring someone to work with the private sector on the idea of job-growth limits. That and other components of the Institute committee’s work could be incorporated into the Aspen Area Community Plan adopted later this year.


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