Reducing home sizes in Pitkin County on the table

Citizen board researching the best methods to limit impacts to growth and development and make recommendations for elected officials to pass new policy

Pitkin County planning areas.

Recognizing that monster homes are creating negative impacts on the quality of life for residents, as well as on the environment, a citizen group appointed by Pitkin County’s elected officials may recommend limiting house sizes, among other mitigation measures to deal with growth and development.

The Community Growth Advisory Committee, a 26-person group established earlier this year by the Board of Pitkin County Commissioners, collectively agreed last week that limiting home sizes, along with changes to the land use code and zoning regulations are the levers they would like to pursue to help elected officials mitigate growth and lessen its impacts.

Committee member Cliff Weiss spoke in favor of house size caps at last week’s meeting, which was the eighth time the group has meet since it convened in August.

“Less construction, less waste from construction, less services, less energy, less employees, less traffic, it’s that simple,” he said. “We are feeding an industry that is bigger than tourism in this valley and house caps will at least keep that industry from growing out of control.”

What does buildout look like?

Current zoning allows up to 15,000 square feet of residential floor area on residential and agricultural parcels in most of the county except for some areas in the Aspen/Pitkin urban growth boundary and a few rural caucus areas where the number has been reduced, according to a white paper written by county staff and the planning team on the topic.

Weiss’ comments reflect what is written in the document.

“The larger the home, the higher the demand is for services, straining an already tight labor market with a limited availability of employees,” the document reads. “As a result, we are seeing that the servicing of the homes is generating a secondary economy in which the community retail stores, accommodations and restaurants are fighting for the same employees.”

In its deliberations, the committee also is contemplating staff’s buildout study, which estimates how much development could occur given the current land use regulations and inventory of approved but unbuilt development.

“At the maximum square feet allowed under zoning, the 1,267 new units possible under zoning and the 1,700 potential redevelopment sites could result in an additional 32,464,000 square feet of residential floor area in the unincorporated county at buildout,” according to the white paper. “If homes are built only up to the 5,750-square-foot exemption threshold, new units and redevelopment sites could result in an additional 11,574,000 square feet of residential floor area in the unincorporated county at buildout. This is just over one-third of the square feet that would be possible were homes to be built to the maximum square footage allowed under zoning. Construction related impacts on the landfill are directly linked to the volume of construction.”

Greenhouse gas emissions

The commissioners convened the Community Growth Advisory Committee with the goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2050 and residential net zero by 2030, as well as create a healthy level of economic vitality.

Based on data in 2019, emissions from residential buildings are the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in unincorporated Pitkin County, accounting for 47% of total emissions.

“While homes larger than 5,750 square feet comprised 13% of the single-family housing inventory in unincorporated Pitkin County in 2019, emissions from large home energy use accounted for 43.4% of total residential energy use emissions in the same year,” according to the study. “Within the residential home energy use segment, large homes tend to use more energy.”

They also suck more resources due to construction and maintenance; the increase in jobs and related vehicle trips to serve private residences; and incremental material waste, according to county staff.

Newer homes also use more energy per square foot, even with updated building codes focused on energy efficiency, because they have humidification, snowmelt, roof and gutter melt systems, pools, spas, complex audio visual and security systems, and increased expectations of thermal comfort and therefore higher use of cooling systems, and a liberal use of glass in the high-end residential market, staff wrote.

Combining the emissions associated with energy use and maintenance activities, large homes account for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 in unincorporated Pitkin County with transportation as the biggest contributor.

Uncharted future

Deputy County Manager Kara Silbernagel said the commissioners have been discussing limiting growth for a while and are looking at tweaks to the government’s growth management quota system and its transferrable development rights program.

The committee is examining those as well, along with affordable housing mitigation fees, home sizes and other regulatory changes.

“Every one of those levers has a dial and how much do you want to turn the dial?” Silbernagel said in an interview last week. “What is the balance for those dials?”

The committee represents a cross section of community members and were selected based on their backgrounds, experience and professions; 70 people applied to be on the committee, according to Marci Suazo, the county’s communications manager.

The committee meets again on Dec. 14, when its members will dive further into the levers it wants to pull in limiting growth and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and construction waste in the landfill.

“I think that this is an opportunity to look at what the resettlement of this community looks like, not redevelopment, resettlement, and where are our priorities to establish a community that really honors the values that appear in this room,” said committee member and former Basalt Mayor Rick Stevens at last week’s meeting held in the Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Center in Basalt.

The committee is expected to make a policy recommendation in the first half of 2023, which will first be reviewed by the county’s planning and zoning commission and then go to the commissioners.

The board will hear an update about the committee’s work thus far during its work session on Tuesday.


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