Mayoral hopefuls discuss styles of leadership, project fees

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The question of affordable-housing-mitigation fees – a city of Aspen requirement for building projects, and a thorn in the side of many developers – provoked a few strong responses Tuesday night during the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s mayoral-candidate forum at the Limelight Hotel.

Aspen’s development rules allow developers to pay a substantial sum to the city, based on the number of employees their projects create, in lieu of building actual affordable-housing units. A developer, however, can build the units instead of paying the fees.

Some of the answers also touched on other forms of city-required mitigation, such as parking spaces.

The event’s moderator asked the six candidates – Adam Frisch, L.J. Erspamer, Steve Skadron, Torre, Maurice Emmer and Derek Johnson – if Aspen’s mitigation fees are “too high” given the slow growth of the local and national economy.

“I didn’t call it the ‘mitigation-industrial complex’ for nothing,” Frisch said. “We’ve spun out of control.”

Regulations such as the mitigation fees were put into place so that more workers could be housed in the city, but they end up having an opposite effect, he said.

“When you actually open up the paperwork that former councils have put in place over the past 10 or 12 years, you see that you don’t want a job to come to town,” Frisch said. “A little bit of mitigation is important, … but tools, like mitigation, have overtaken our goals.”

Erspamer said the concept behind Aspen’s fees should be relaxed to reflect reasonable mitigation.

“You can’t price people out of business,” he said. “You have to look at what this will do to the market.”

Skadron said the fees relate to the overall community’s values.

“We don’t assess the mitigation fee for the sake of assessing a mitigation fee,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about housing local workers.”

He said that if lower mitigation fees are discussed, two questions arise: Does Aspen have the ability to maintain a local work force to sustain its economy, or does the community want to bring in more commuters who live downvalley?

Torre said the answer is obvious: The fees are high.

“This community has had a long-standing goal of development paying its way,” he said.

But Torre said the city budget has grown to the point at which the level of mitigation fees can be reassessed and possibly lowered. On Tuesday night, he pointed out, the council discussed the idea of waiving such fees to spark redevelopment of small lodges.

“I have a strong feeling that what you’re going to see from the leadership on this council moving forward is an investment into our community, but it’s only because those mitigation fees have been in place to this point that we’re going to be able to do that,” Torre said.

Emmer said mitigation is only one piece of a general policy direction from past City Councils.

“I think we’re at a place where that general policy direction has been anti-growth,” he said. “So we are now in a spot where it’s very difficult for people to do stuff that they want to do.

“Now we have to think about (whether) that is the right place for us to be, in this global and national economy we’re in, where we are competing with other resort destinations. Or should we modify our direction? Because if we’re going to modify our direction, we’d better get busy doing it.”

Johnson said there is no blanket answer.

“There are certain areas where fees are too high,” he said. “Lodging, we’ve heard it loud and clear that in order to bring a new lodge into this community, it’s very expensive.”

Johnson said he is a strong believer in both employee housing and new lodging.

“We have to balance those things out,” he said. “We also have to look at all of our fees collectively.”

The candidates also were asked if Mayor Mick Ireland, who is barred from seeking re-election because of term limits, has been good for Aspen and how their styles compare with his.

Some see Ireland, who first became mayor in 2007, as a polarizing presence in city government. Four of the mayoral candidates – Skadron, Torre, Johnson and Frisch – are currently serving with Ireland on the City Council.

Emmer – who clashed with Ireland last year over the mayor’s staunch support of the Castle Creek hydropower project – said he wrote a letter to one of the local newspapers congratulating him for his years of service.

“Many people know that he and I disagree on almost everything,” Emmer said. “But I’ll tell you, the guy had ideas, he was never bashful about putting (them) forward, … and I think those are good traits for a mayor.”

Emmer added, however, that Ireland wasn’t “collaborative enough or inclusive enough.”

Torre noted that he ran against Ireland in 2007.

“I offered an alternative to that style of leadership, even going back six years ago,” he said.

However, Torre said, Ireland’s passion for Aspen has been unmatched. He said he would employ a less aggressive communication style as mayor.

“It’s a style-versus-substance thing, but I’m deeply grateful for the commitment Mick has made to the community,” Skadron said, adding that Ireland has made many personal sacrifices while serving as mayor.

“Stylistically, I bring a thoughtful, collaborative and more deliberative style versus Mick’s more top-down ideological one,” he said.

Frisch said he appreciates Ireland’s intellect and clarity.

“I think the community’s ready for a change of tone,” he said. “(But) I think Mick does a good job of representing all the people who voted for him.”

Erspamer and Johnson noted that Ireland relates well with the youth and enjoys the spirit of volunteerism.

“He became such a polarizing figure that there was no way to engage with people in other ideals,” Erspamer said.

“Mick’s style is Mick’s style,” Johnson said, “and it has served him well. He’s 10-and-0.”

During the evening, the candidates touched on several other issues, including the controversial $18 million purchase of a lumberyard west of town, a chamber-sponsored economic report that spoke of barriers to growth and the recent ban on free-market development in the downtown area.

The Aspen mayoral election will take place May 7. A runoff of the top two vote-getters, if necessary, would be June 4.