Pitkin County commissioners unanimously approve Aspen Fire Department housing project near airport
Complex will have 15 units, including one single-family home by North 40 subdivision
Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a shorter, leaner version of an affordable-housing complex at the Aspen Business Center that will be built for firefighters.
“I think the (Aspen) Fire Department has done a good job compromising on things legally it didn’t have to compromise on,” said county board Chairman Steve Child. “It’s a better project now than when it was first presented.”
However, Child noted the intense opposition to the project from many residents of the neighboring North 40 subdivision when he expressed hopes for a future peaceful coexistence.
“They have some work to do with the neighbors,” he said. “I hope the residents who move in will be good neighbors.”
Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine assured him the department’s volunteers will be neighborly.
“We do want to be good neighbors,” Balentine said in a phone interview afterward. “The compromises we made hopefully will make people happy enough to welcome us to the neighborhood.”
A contractor already has been hired to build the complex, and Balentine said Wednesday he hopes preliminary work on the site next to the North 40 Fire Station can begin this fall. Fire officials plan to meet with the contractor next week to work out details, he said.
The version of the project approved Wednesday by commissioners was a bit smaller than the one first submitted in June. Instead of 17 units, the complex will feature 15 units: three studios, one one-bedroom, five two-bedrooms, five three-bedrooms and one 1,750-square-foot single-family home. They all will be rentals.
The scaled-down version of the project became necessary after the Fire Department agreed to reduce the height of the tallest building from 32 feet to 28 feet to comply with the area’s master plan, Balentine said. That shrunk the ceiling height in the units to unacceptable levels and officials decided to chop off the third-story bedrooms entirely, which cut the number of total units.
“I think it is a much better project in some ways,” Balentine said. “At the end of the day, it will be a beautiful project.”
The project, which will include an underground parking garage, was slated to cost $17 million when it included 17 units. Balentine said Wednesday he didn’t know how much cutting two units would save, though he hopes to spend the savings building or buying housing elsewhere.
Because Aspen Fire Protection District is a division of the state, local authorities had little say over the project and its conformity to zoning guidelines.
The county’s Planning and Zoning Commission ruled in June that it didn’t conform to the area’s master plan because of the then-32-foot height, but nonetheless voted to recommend it to commissioners because of the dearth of affordable housing in Aspen and Pitkin County. Commissioners only had sway over the project because it was near an arterial highway, mass transit and the airport.
The Fire Department’s board of directors overruled the Planning and Zoning Commission’s vote of nonconformity, but also voted in a concession to reduce the height of the complex to meet master plan maximum guidelines.
The final project’s 15 units will provide 21,000 square feet of living space instead of 25,000 square feet. The 20,000-square-foot parking garage will feature 30 spaces instead of 34 spaces, said Chris Bendon, the project’s planner. Eight more parking spaces above ground on the street will be provided, plus five public spaces on Front Way.
Another sticking point with commissioners — and the reason the project’s consideration was delayed in August — were questions over traffic impacts the project would cause to the nearby intersection of Baltic Avenue and Highway 82, and who would pay for them.
Pitkin County had asked the Fire Department for a $100,000 contribution to mitigate future road impacts. The department, through Bendon, had balked at the number, saying it was nebulous because no one knew the impacts or how to mitigate them yet.
Since August, Pitkin County Engineer G. R. Fielding studied the intersection. He found that 17 new living units — the figure available at the time — would exacerbate traffic problems at the somewhat tricky intersection, but not enough to trigger wholesale re-engineering efforts.
As Child said Wednesday, the study makes clear the county will have to address the issues posed by the intersection with or without the volunteer firefighter housing complex. In the end, the Fire Department will pay just under $81,000 to mitigate the project’s traffic impacts on the Baltic intersection.
Child also said he’d like the department to extend the sidewalk from the fire station to Baltic Avenue to assist pedestrians, and Bendon indicated that would happen.
Commissioner George Newman said if it had been a normal development application, he would have denied it or negotiated a decrease in units to the 10 to 12 range.
“I think that would have been acceptable quickly to the neighborhood,” he said.
Still, he said he supported the project in the end because it had “more pros than cons” and would provide more affordable housing to an area in dire need of it.
Commissioners Kelly McNicholas Kury and Patti Clapper also said they thought a 10- to 12-unit project would have faced little resistance from neighbors.
Several of those neighbors again commented Wednesday against the project, saying fire officials had been dishonest and that the complex was too dense. Many more commented in favor of the project Wednesday, including Aspen City Councilman Skippy Mesirow and developer Mark Hunt.
The atmosphere between fire officials and North 40 neighbors sometimes got testy throughout the P&Z hearing in June and the BOCC hearings this summer. That push and pull at times manifested itself through a soccer field located at the subdivision. North 40 residents have said they would not share the field with firefighter residents or Colorado Mountain College students, who may eventually reside dorms in the area.
On Wednesday, Bendon was asked again about the soccer field and whether volunteer firefighters and their famililes could use it.
“We cannot,” he said. “We’re spectators.”
That prompted John Ward, president of Aspen Fire Protection Board of Directors and a North 40 resident, to speak up in favor of cooler heads and better neighbors. He said he’s coached lacrosse at the field many times and would like to believe that no kid who lives in the area would be policed from it.
“I would hope that kids at the Fire Department housing would be able to use it and not be forbidden from it,” he said, offering to help pay for the field’s maintenance.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said he appreciated Ward’s comments because his children were once kicked off that particular field while having a picnic. He said that it’s important to be inclusive and if kids live in the area and are not allowed on the field, “my sympathy just drains away.”
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