Aspen officials leaning toward letting voters decide future of municipal building | AspenTimes.com

Aspen officials leaning toward letting voters decide future of municipal building

Aspen City Council on Tuesday extended its real estate contract with developer Mark Hunt to buy turnkey office space across from City Hall with the probability of putting that and the government's already approved building near Rio Grande Park to voters this fall.

The city went under contract with Hunt about a month ago to buy nearly 27,000 square feet at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. and 204 S. Galena St. for $32.5 million. The due diligence period for that deal was to end Sept. 1.

Now, the contract has been amended and extended so that both options for municipal office space can be put in front of voters on Nov. 6.

"Mark Hunt has agreed to extend his contract until December if we put this on the ballot," Mayor Steve Skadron said Tuesday.

The decision came after council went into executive session just before midnight Monday and prior to Tuesday's afternoon meeting to discuss a lawsuit levied by two Aspen residents, which has delayed the city's plan to build up to a 37,500-square-foot building between Rio Grande Park and Galena Plaza.

Council also discussed the real estate contract with Hunt and its implications.

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If council agrees to put the question to voters, the plaintiffs, Steve Goldenberg and Marcia Goshorn, along with Snowmass Canyon resident Toni Kronberg who is assisting them, must drop the lawsuit — regardless of the election outcome.

"I cannot in good conscience suggest to council that you go forward with a ballot issue unless no matter what the result is, the litigation is dismissed with prejudice, and that is a fundamental condition of placing anything on the ballot," City Attorney Jim True said.

He said he will work with the litigants and their attorney, Denver-based Jordan Porter, on a settlement agreement. He also will draft ballot language that will be presented to council next week.

Sept. 7 is the deadline for ballot questions to be finalized.

The real estate deal also includes Hunt redeveloping City Hall for $15 million, which is purportedly cheaper than if the city did it itself.

There is support on council that both options for municipal office space be put to the voters this November.

"I'm happy to make the decision at the council table but I'm not going to put up a fight" to put both options on the ballot, Councilman Adam Frisch said.

That move would be somewhat ironic, since the lawsuit filed by Goldenberg and Goshorn sought a public vote on the city's plan to build at Rio Grande.

But what is different now is there is another option on the table. Kronberg on Tuesday commended the council for being open enough to let voters decide.

"You are giving them the ability to make a choice," she said.

Council approved the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza building via Ordinance 4 in April 2017. Goshorn and Goldenberg sued the next month, arguing the city abused its discretion.

They were attempting to get a citizen petition on the ballot to let the electorate vote on the development. But what was at issue is whether they had collected enough valid signatures from registered voters to get on the ballot, per the city's home rule charter.

Ninth Judicial District Court Judge John Neiley dismissed the case Aug. 2, ruling in the city's favor.

Earlier this month, Porter filed a motion for the court to reconsider Neiley's ruling. The court has not made a decision on that filing.

Kronberg has said the group would appeal to a higher court if the district court does not rule in their favor.

However, an associated lawsuit levied by Goshorn and Goldenberg still is pending. That suit alleges that the home rule charter mandates a public vote on the project because it changes the use of public open space that was purchased with specific tax revenue. The court has not weighed in on that aspect of the case.

Hunt's offer is seen as a viable alternative to the city's Rio Grande building, since the legal wrangling has put it on indefinite hold.

City officials recognize that having the case drag on in the Colorado Court of Appeals would increase the cost of the Rio Grande/Galena Plaza project and delay adequate working space for employees.

The project is currently budgeted at $22 million but local construction costs are estimated to escalate 10 percent annually.

The city's victory has changed the dynamic to some degree but there is still uncertainty that the plaintiffs could prevail.

Putting the decision in voters' hands would ensure that the litigation over municipal office space is no longer the driving force in a decision.

csackariason@aspentimes.com

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