Rural homes just got bigger
Pitkin County commissioners voted 4-1 yesterday to make major revisions to the controversial zoning rules for the backcountry.
The Rural and Remote zone district, which put sharp limits on development in the backcountry, was rewritten to allow homes of up to 2,500 square feet. Previously, Rural and Remote limited backcountry development to 1,000-square-foot cabins.
The commissioners also decided to scrap a provision that required homesites to be at least 35 acres, instead allowing smaller lots through a special review process that requires board approval.
The decision may also result in major changes to the market for transferable development rights, a concept developed in the mid-1990s to allow backcountry property owners to realize profits on their holdings.
County Commissioner Mick Ireland, who helped fashion the Rural and Remote zone district, cast the only vote against the changes. Ireland and former Commissioner Bill Tuite survived a recall election in 1996, after Rural and Remote was adopted.
Ireland reiterated the same objections he has made since the issue first came before the commissioners last fall – homes larger than 1,000 square feet will attract buyers who demand more services and have a much heavier impact on the environment.
“I think you’re opening the door to real estate opportunities up there that will lead to the kind of development that is going to change the characteristics of the backcountry,” Ireland said.
The remaining four commissioners, however, were set to make changes that they think will result in greater protection of undeveloped properties. The debate was never about whether changes should be made, only what kind. And all four found the idea of setting aside large tracts of land in exchange for the right to build full-sized homes attractive.
To build a home larger than 1,000 square feet in the backcountry, a developer is required to find a suitable building site that is on the edge of the Rural and Remote zone. Under the new zoning, it must comply with the county’s growth management requirements, and cannot be further developed once the building is completed.
The new zoning leaves the 1,000-square-foot limit as a starting point for an aggregation process that relies heavily on transferable development rights.
Under the existing TDR program, a single “development right” of 5,000 square feet can be transferred off a 35-acre parcel in the backcountry and used to exceed building size restrictions elsewhere in the county.
The zoning changes made last night require developers of backcountry homes to set aside 105 contiguous acres that are under single ownership. Owners of smaller parcels are not allowed to combine their acreage to help a developer qualify, except through the sale of property.
Once that requirement is met, a developer has three transferable development rights. If they are all used within the Rural and Remote zone, the first two are worth 500 square feet apiece, allowing a 2,000-square-foot home, with the 1,000 square feet already allowed. The third is worthless for the backcountry development unless the developer retires another 35-acre parcel to acquire a fourth TDR, which, combined with the third, would allow an additional 500 square feet.
If the third development right isn’t used for the backcountry development in question, it can be sold and used elsewhere in the county.
The commissioners briefly considered allowing transferable development rights to be acquired from separate, noncontiguous parcels, but commissioners Patti Clapper and Leslie Lamont joined Ireland in opposing the idea.
“We should be getting more through this process than the preservation of 35-acre lots,” Clapper said.
Issues such as public access and commercial use of land that has been retired from development will be handled through special review. The question of how to transfer existing cabins on retired lots into the affordable housing program is being considered by the planning department.
The changes come after more than a year of wrangling over a proposal by a development company known as Castle Creek Investors to build a 2,400-square-foot home on a 10-acre mining claim on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Yesterday’s actions will allow commissioners to grant their request.
CCI is expected to submit an amended application for its proposal soon.
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