Small is beautiful, citizens coalition tells Pitkin County in advisory on growth

The Pitkin County Community Growth Advisory Committee presented its report on land-use code and growth management to the board of county commissioners and Planning & Zoning on Tuesday. All recommendations, including this overlay map, are suggestions and will likely be edited by the commissioners.
Pitkin County/Courtesy image

A report authored by a coalition of locals aims to push Pitkin County’s land-use code toward smaller, more energy-efficient homes that function as houses and not “micro-economies.”

The Community Growth Advisory Committee presented their 70-page report to a joint session of the Board of County Commissioners and the Planning & Zoning board on Tuesday. The report lays out a series of actions the county could take to change the land-use code, though no formal action or decisions were made at the work session. 

“The kind of baseline philosophy or kind of guiding principle that drove this was that as homes get bigger, things should get harder,” said Michael Miracle, the committee co-chair and Aspen Skiing Co. director of community development. “The burden for what that home should do in terms of mitigation and giving back to the community should increase.”

The commissioners formed the 26-person committee in July 2022, following up on climate goals set by the county in 2019. The committee met 21 times over 10 months, working on a report for the county to advise on how to manage impacts of growth and development, align community values, and meet climate action goals — the No. 1 priority. Residential buildings are one of the top polluters in the region, just behind vehicle traffic. 

The report broke down 14 areas of focus for the board to consider their recommendations, including: floor area ratio, square footage cap, tiering system, performance standards, development standard, growth management quota system, square footage quota system, transferable development rights (TDRs), expanded TDR concept, zoning overlay/rural area, administrative policies, affordable housing solutions, mitigation/impact fees, and redevelopment. 

The proposed changes would work in conjunction to streamline permitting processes for houses in the lowest tiers of square footage for allowing new development.

According to the report, the average home size in Pitkin County is about 3,250 square feet. The report suggests to allow up to 5,750 square feet on new homes by right, then cap square footage at 9,250 square feet within the Urban Growth Boundary and up to 8,750 square feet in unincorporated Pitkin County. Currently, the square footage limit is 15,000 square feet. 

Allowing larger houses within the Urban Growth Bound boundary than in rural areas sounded strange to some of the commissioners, to which Miracle said, “It just goes to where big belongs. Because of the impacts that tend to come with big, having them nearer to infrastructure, nearer to paved roads, just nearer to services. It makes the most sense to them there.”

He talked at length about how large mansions in rural parts of the county operate as their own “micro-economies,” with limited services like public transportation and multiple vehicles coming and going from the property at any given time. 

“Houses should act like houses, and not vehicle trips and workforce-intensive micro-economies,” he said. “That’s particularly true the further you get into the rural and remote areas. That’s where the home should least act like a commercial enterprise.”

In that vein, the report also recommended multiple avenues to promote affordable-housing projects. One strategy included looking at including affordable housing outside of the urban-growth boundary, for some local workers to be closer to the large rural homes at which they might be employed to cut down on vehicle miles traveled. 

That struck the commissioners as a little strange.

“Affordable housing — I love seeing that,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “Promoting it outside the (urban growth boundary) makes me jittery.”

Another major component of the report is the changes it suggests to the county TDR process. Among many other changes, the ratio of sending to landing TDRs for houses larger than the by-right 5,750 square feet would change. Instead of the former 1:1 ratio, a landing TDR up to 1,000 square feet would be 1.5:1, or 1,500 sent square feet would land as 1,000 square feet. And more than 1,000 square feet would be 2:1, or 2,000 sent square feet would land as 1,000 square feet. 

The TDRs would be transferred in 500-square-foot allotments instead of the current 2,500 square feet (one TDR = 500 square feet). And 10% of any TDR sale would have to go to energy-efficiency updates. 

And the report recommends changing the county’s zoning to a five-zone map, with certain restrictions on special-use permits in the most rural zones. 

Commissioner Francie Jacober took care to check that landowners out in rural zones would still be able to host events like weddings on their land through permits, as that income supplements an agriculture-based income. 

It is not clear how the report’s recommendations would interact with the state bill HB-1255, which passed at the end of the last legislative session. The law prohibits local governments from enacting anti-growth laws, with some exceptions for areas like Aspen and Pitkin County. 

Overall, commissioners reacted with enthusiasm to the report, asking critical questions of the new zoning map and details of the new TDR protocol. 

Still, any action on changing the land use code is some time away. The commissioners will take time to consider the report’s recommendations and edit or eliminate pieces as they see fit. 

“The best way to thank us is by doing as much of what we suggest as you can,” Miracle half-joked during the presentation.