P&Z members reflect on criticism of Aspen Area Community Plan
ASPEN – A week ago, at a local business luncheon, they took things pretty hard on the chin. Tuesday afternoon, they met and tried to sort it all out.And a wide range of thoughts came forth from the volunteer members of the Aspen and Pitkin County Planning and Zoning commissions, who at the April 13 Aspen Business Luncheon were praised for more than two years and 60 meetings of extremely hard work on the 2011 Aspen Area Community Plan, yet roundly criticized for putting together a document seen by many as anti-development.As city P&Z member Cliff Weiss put it during Tuesday’s meeting at the county building: “They have a carrot in one hand and a way big stick in the other.” The remark drew a fair amount of laughter from those in the room.The AACP has been tooled and retooled, and reflects what the commissioners feel are the overall Aspen-area community’s wishes based on numerous small and large group meetings with the public, “clicker sessions” in which citizens provided opinions on future growth and other issues using handheld devices, and city and county resident surveys.The public has been invited to participate throughout the process. But since the release of a draft of the document last fall, pro-business forces – including some Aspen Chamber Resort Association board members, developers, real-estate professionals and local candidates for elected office – have taken several shots at the plan. Generally, they say it seeks to stifle growth in the city to the point of hamstringing the business community, and doesn’t do enough to emphasize the area’s position as a tourism destination.There is language in the plan about maintaining Aspen’s small-town feel; perhaps such sentiments are one of the major points of contention. In recent months, business community representatives have attended some P&Z meetings “in the 11th hour” to iron out differences of opinion over language and precepts; perhaps the changes have not gone far enough to suit many among the pro-growth crowd.City P&Z Chairman Stan Gibbs said the plan shouldn’t be revised to reflect current economic conditions, as some critics have suggested. He reminded fellow commissioners that the 2011 AACP is a 10-year plan, and as such, might be used during vastly different economic cycles.”I think we need to remember that the plan itself really consists of vision, and philosophies that underlie that,” Gibbs said, “and policies which should be used to help direct policymakers in the directions they need to go to help to bring those visions and philosophies to a reality.”It doesn’t say anything about the economy,” Gibbs continued. “It doesn’t say anything about $6 billion or $12 billion in real-estate sales. It doesn’t say anything really about the level of economic activity. And I feel it would be a mistake for us to believe that basing any of our output on the current economic state would be any more valid than doing it on the 2007 economic state.”Gibbs added, “If we’re going to be bumped back and forth, ricocheted around because of the economy changing from year to year, we don’t have a real plan; we don’t have a concept of what Aspen’s all about then. It means that we’re all completely worrying about what’s going on downtown, and that, I don’t believe, is what we’re supposed to be doing.”Comments from both county and city commissioners ranged from going full bore with information to the public – such as attaching online data links to certain sections of the AACP as a way of explaining how P&Z members arrived at their conclusions – to pressing forward with the plan’s completion over the next month in the spirit of how it has so far evolved.Three public hearings are scheduled over the next month on the document and its recent revisions. But some commissioners as well as city and county staffers said it was likely that even more time would be needed to sort out the various issues involving the plan. City elections to elect a mayor and two council members will be held May 3; a runoff, if necessary, will be held June 7. It is doubtful that the city’s elected government will rush to pass a plan under the current leadership.Other comments aimed at the plan include whether it is a regulatory, binding document or a road map to future decisions. Commissioners were not happy that many view the AACP as simply a regulatory stranglehold, saying that governmental action items in the plan are recommendations about how to proceed, not direct ways of changing city and county codes.Aspen Community Development Director Chris Bendon said he doesn’t think that pro-business recommendations of doing a more current economic study before approving the AACP would necessarily harm the plan’s current vision.”It might just tell us what we already know,” he said. “It might be valuable from an economist’s perspective of understanding what we just went through, in that it helps us perfect the community planning process. … In terms of timing, I don’t see it necessarily slowing us down.”Bendon added that not every aspect of the document needs to be updated. Sections on schools and parks, for instance, aren’t a source of criticism and can basically stand as written. He joked, with an element of truth, that the public process was akin to “sausage-making,” and not always firstname.lastname@example.org
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