Mayoral candidates ponder Aspen’s building heights |

Mayoral candidates ponder Aspen’s building heights

Aspen Times staff report

ASPEN — The six candidates for Aspen mayor are Maurice Emmer, L.J. Erspamer, Adam Frisch, Derek Johnson, Steve Skadron and Torre. Check The Aspen Times this week, Monday through Friday, to see where the candidates stand on a variety of issues.

Today’s question: Earlier this year, a majority of Aspen City Council members (including the mayor, who is a voting member) agreed to tough restrictions on downtown development, including a 28-foot height limit for new and renovated building projects and a ban on new free-market residential projects. Do you agree or disagree with that decision?

L.J. Erspamer

There is a saying that those who do not remember history are destined to repeat it. About 15 years ago, the City Council downzoned the commercial core. In the next election there was a change in the majority of the council, and this created the “infill” that brought new heights of 42 feet to 45 feet and reduced mitigation, which had a profound change to the character of Aspen.

I have a big concern that this will happen again, depending on the outcome of this election. We must stop the yo-yo land-use changes. We must create predictability and certainty in the code that will be sustainable through time.

I believe in a 38-foot height limit with block zoning. Any new buildings must be in character with the surrounding buildings relevant to their mass and scale. The corner buildings will be the transitional areas for the next block. Any new buildings should not overshadow our historic, iconic buildings.

This recent reduction in height to such a drastic level has been a shock to the current property owners. This has had such a radical impact to property values that future investors will question the worth of investing in our community.

Before any change is made to the code, there must be a public outreach and discussion that thoroughly investigates the best manner to proceed for the search of meaningful solutions.

Maurice Emmer

I disagree with the decision because it was based on emotion rather than applicable law and analysis. Furthermore, the required public process was pushed aside, preventing proper vetting of issues. This was the kind of bad process I seek to reform.

The city has a qualified and dedicated Planning and Zoning Commission. Proposed changes in zoning (specific ordinance changes) should originate in, or be studied by, P&Z. P&Z’s recommendation should be made to City Council in live, public discussion. Instead, some councilmen attempted to ram this decision through as an “emergency” ordinance, when the matter clearly did not constitute an emergency under Aspen’s charter (“for the preservation of public property, health, peace, or safety,” Charter Section 4.11). When that failed, a simple majority of council adopted the ordinance. But in neither case had the ordinance been considered by P&Z. There was no ordinance recommended by P&Z. If P&Z’s role is to be so peripheral, what is the point of having P&Z? Why would talented citizens invest their time serving when council minimizes its role?

The instinct of some council members is to substitute personal tastes for proper government process. It illustrates why Aspen’s zoning code has become like an Amtrak schedule: merely a suggestion.

As mayor, I would enlist the volunteer boards and commissions to examine the decision and advise council whether they believe any modification is required to ensure the decision reflects a community decision rather than the personal taste of a handful on council.


I voted in favor of the height restriction and removing the free-market residential component. Downtown penthouses have not been the hot-bed use we had hoped for; instead they have had the opposite effect, impacting and chilling the vibrancy of some buildings and the business core.

I support the third-floor allowance for lodging use. I also suggested third-floor uses to include affordable commercial or affordable housing, but Adam Frisch, Derek Johnson and Steve Skadron did not support it. I would maintain the code for the next two years while we have the next wave of building go on. Then, I would support refining our land-use codes to reflect pro-community building.

We can protect the character of Aspen and have appropriate redevelopment that enhances our community.

Derek Johnson

I was the lone vote on City Council against limiting the ability to continue with mixed-use development in our city core. I believed that we had the tools in place to address concerns some had regarding the effects of free-market mixed-use in our core. We have our current historic regulations and guidelines that govern and protect many of our structures. We also have multiple view planes that protect much of our community from excessive building heights.

I was also strongly against how this process was started: by emergency ordinance. Because council moved so quickly in limiting development, we are now faced with a flood of applications. We now need time to digest and understand what we will look like after these applications move through our system. Additional lodging needs to be a priority. Making it viable and realistic for current lodges and condos to perform necessary renovations also needs to be high on our agenda.

Adam Frisch

The vote in question was to raise the 28-foot height restriction to include an exemption for a third floor for lodges. I did not support a blanket 28-foot height limit; rather, I think height limits should be in the context of the project. The city should have a healthy mix of two- and three-story buildings.

That said, in this instance, I voted “yes” on the amendment before us since it was the best of the options under consideration at the time and it represented a move in the right direction.

More lodging in town is clearly needed. I supported the third-floor lodging allowance recognizing that while this measure was more restrictive than what is in the best long-term interest of the community, it was better than the status quo of no lodging allowances at all.

City councils should be held accountable for how long their land-use codes are relevant; I believe the majority of our community wants stable land-use codes, not ones that are constantly changing due to knee-jerk reactions to specific projects. Moving around the “goal posts” is bad policy and frustrating for our community.

I remain committed to a healthy mix of two- and three-story buildings in the downtown core but only in locations where historical view planes will not be obstructed. As mayor, I will support common-sense land-use codes that both preserve and enhance our special small-town character but not ones that are reactive to a specific building, developer or short-term economic conditions.

Steve Skadron

I supported the height ordinance and will continue to do so. It’s my intention to keep the downtown core one of the world’s great urban spaces by honoring the vision our predecessors set forth, which helped to define Aspen’s small-town character.

Infill, the policy this ordinance attempts to address, failed to satisfy its primary goal — to return locally serving businesses to the downtown core. Infill has done the opposite. It’s driven out locally serving businesses, hurt vitality and diluted our local flavor. I won’t stand for that.

In its 1972 protest against bringing the Winter Olympics here, Tom Benton’s famous poster declared, “Stop the final rape of Aspen.” Albeit harsh, I recognize the sentiment: the commercialization of our town for speculative purposes that compromise our core values and our quality of life.

Our distinctiveness is a function of the built environment, and smaller buildings reflect what it is to be a small town.

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