‘Rural and Remote,’ the zoning that saved the back of Aspen Mountain from monster homes, turns 25

Scott Condon for the Aspen Times Weekly


Since Rural and Remote Zoning was created 25 years ago, 26 properties in that zone district have obtained approval to develop cabins, according to a December 2018 report by the Pitkin County Community Development Department.

Of those approvals, 15 cabins were built and one existing cabin was expanded to 1,000 square feet. Another 10 cabins are approved but not yet built.

Fifteen of the approved cabins are in the Little Annie/Midnight Mine/Richmond Ridge area on the backside of Aspen Mountain.

Significantly more property owners decided to sell transferrable development rights rather than build a cabin. The TDRs were created by Pitkin County to avoid a legal challenge that they were taking property rights without compensation.

There have been 385 TDR certificates issued, meaning the rights can be used elsewhere. Of those, 263 came from Rural and Remote properties. Other TDRs came from properties with some type of building constraint.

Between 1996 and the end of last year, 8,712 acres of land have been deed restricted against development as a result of 380 development rights being severed from the property, the county report said.

There have been 352 TDRs approved for use on other properties, including 265 to increase house size.

The going rate at the time of the December report was $210,000 to $235,000.

“The price of a TDR is still lower than at the height of the market ($318,000 in 2007), but the price has climbed since the bottom of the market ($115,000 in 2012),” said the December report by Assistant Community Development Director Suzanne Wolff.

It’s the early 1990s in Aspen. Chains such as Hard Rock Café are proliferating. Jokes are starting about the billionaires pushing out the millionaires. There is a frenzy to acquire land, any land, to build a house. Longtime Aspenites are desperate to preserve what was dubbed “messy vitality” in the Aspen Area Community Plan. Pitkin County government officials are freaked out about the potential for development of patented mining claims, which are privately owned. Many of these claims are located in pristine backcountry areas, off the beaten path.

The county is powerless to deny an application for one big house at the intersection of Little Annie Road and Lower Hurricane Road, about 1.25 miles from Castle Creek Road.

It gets into a legal battle over an application for a monster home on Richmond Ridge, roughly 1.5 miles south of Aspen Mountain ski area’s Sundeck Restaurant.

County officials are concerned that once development starts on the backside, it will run rampant.

“Everyone was really aware of the build-out potential,” said Glen Horn, a land-use planner who worked for Pitkin County in the 1980s and who is now in private practice. “You could have houses all over up there.”

Not just houses, but McMansions of up to 15,000 square feet.

The county was trying to stem development by adopting high standards for roads and driveways. Horn said that was nothing but a delay tactic. The type of people who were looking at backcountry property had the money to build roads and extend utilities despite the expense.

“You can throw money at the problems to resolve them,” he said.

Little Annie Road and Midnight Mine Road, both off Castle Creek Road, were under the most pressure because of their proximity to Aspen and Aspen Mountain ski area. Imagine how chic it would be to ride a snowmobile or snowcat from your home to Ajax for a day of skiing.

In 1994, the county took two big preemptive moves to limit backcountry development.

Experiment on the backside

First, it swapped 267 patented mining claims, mostly on the backside of Aspen Mountain and along Richmond Ridge, to the U.S. Forest Service to acquire the Mt. Sopris Tree Farm property in El Jebel, now home to Crown Mountain Park.

In an even bigger move, the county commissioners approved a revolutionary downzoning of private land. The county created a new category called Rural and Remote Zoning. It set boundaries beyond which it wouldn’t improve or plow roads and wouldn’t allow extension of utilities. After extensive debate, county officials settled on allowing only residences of 1,000 square feet in the Rural and Remote Zone Districts.

Without Rural and Remote, many backcountry areas could have been developed with a house every 10 acres.

“We started small with 2,800 acres on the back of Aspen Mountain,” said Cindy Houben, a planner for the county at the time and now community development director. The backside of Aspen Mountain was the test case for the concept.

“We wanted to preserve the backcountry character because it’s such an issue here,” Houben said. “The beauty of that day and time — we were able to work with all the major property owners.”

Aspen City Attorney Jim True, who served as a Pitkin County commissioner from 1988 through 1996, supported the test case for Rural and Remote and recalls suggesting to Houben that it would be appropriate elsewhere in the county. It was soon expanded to Fryingpan Valley, Hunter Creek and Van Horn Park and rural areas downvalley.

“I think it’s huge. It did exactly what we wanted it to do. The goal was to avoid having huge, mega-retreats in sensitive areas,” True said.

Without Rural and Remote, he said, the large homes on Red Mountain would have crept into the parcels of private property surrounded by national forest in locales like Hunter Creek Valley.

While the “what if” scenarios can never really be played out, True is convinced private property up Independence Pass would have been developed with helicopter access if not for Rural and Remote.

“We were solid,” he said of the commissioners in office at the time. “Everybody supported it.”

The unanimous 5-0 vote on May 10, 1994, generated its share of controversy. Recall efforts were mounted against the commissioners. Foes couldn’t get enough signatures to force a recall election against True and Wayne Ethridge. Commissioners Mick Ireland and Bill Tuite were forced into a recall election but both survived and remained in office.

True said Rural and Remote Zoning has proved its worth by keeping Pitkin County’s backcountry better preserved than many areas of the state, where the population is booming.

“It was the second biggest downzoning since Joe (Edwards) and Dwight (Shellman) did their thing,” True said. “I am very proud of that.”

Shellman and Edwards were elected on then-radical no-growth platforms in the 1970s and downzoned much of the developable land in the county.

Beyond political challenges, Rural and Remote Zoning faced a legal challenge, as well. Property rights advocates were exploring litigation over a “takings” — the legal term for government taking a thing of value (in this case development rights) without compensation.

Houben and the planning staff came up with another innovation. Properties in the Rural and Remote Zone District were given transferrable development rights, which could be sold in “receiving areas” of the county where development was deemed more acceptable. Now the use of TDRs, as they are known, has expanded. Homeowners and developers can purchase TDRs to increase house size. The TDRs sell for more than $200,000 (see sidebar).

The cabins are few and far between, for the most part. Some are tucked into dark timber while others are in open meadows. At the top of Little Annie Road, the rolling terrain provides excellent views to the soaring peaks in every direction.

Other residences are more ornately adorned abodes that serve as getaways for wealthy owners who need an occasional escape from their second homes in Aspen.

Living up there isn’t for the faint of heart. Roads aren’t plowed, so access is by skis with skins, snowmobiles or snowcats during the long, cold winters. Firewood is at a premium.

Longtime Aspen resident John Doyle’s cabin falls in the rustic category. He first moved to the backside of Aspen Mountain in 1988 and lived there year-round through 2004.

“When I first moved up to the backside it was basically lawless up there,” he said.

There were drug runners, squatters and mostly renters. A hardy few lived there year-round in the tough environment. Now there are more owners but a few squatters remain. It might not be quite as lawless as it was in the 1980s, he said. He estimated about a dozen people live up in the backside year-round.

Doyle has lived in four different cabins over the years, renting the first three before buying his own. He credits John Miller, one of the major landowners on the backside, with giving him an opportunity to purchase land.

Living up there gave Doyle the inspiration for his work making wood sculptures. From his window he has stunning views of Taylor and Star passes, Highlands Ridge and points beyond. He still travels often to his cabin in both winter and summer.

He lobbied for passage of the Rural and Remote Zoning in 1994 and supported the house limit at 1,000 square feet, which he believes is a comfortable size.

“It definitely preserves the character of the backside instead of it becoming a bunch of oversized houses,” Doyle said.

He has made an incredible contoured map of Little Annie Basin and Midnight Mine out of cardboard. All 41 of the homes and cabins on the upper slopes are designated, as are roads and other prominent points. He created it years ago to get a better perspective on his surroundings.

Most mining claims have been developed with cabins or the development rights were extinguished with the sale of TDRs, he said: “There’s very little potential for development.”

Houben said Rural and Remote Zoning creates a buffer to national forest, maintains visual character, preserves open space through the sale of TDRs and maintains that low density, rustic feel of the mountains.

“From a technical perspective, it brought down our ability to sprawl,” Houben said.

True credited Houben with coming up with the planning mechanism to preserve the backcountry lands throughout the county.

Horn concurred that Rural and Remote Zoning sets Pitkin County apart from other parts of the Colorado mountains, where sprawl is an issue.

“It’s Cindy’s legacy,” Horn said. “It’s awesome.”

(Editor’s note: This story was corrected to reflect that John Doyle was a full-time resident of the Little Annie area from 1988 to 2004.)

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