Special events get cautious eye from Pitkin County Planning & Zoning

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
A temporary structure is built on Little Annie Basin for a wedding in June prompted Pitkin County commissioners to address special events in a work session Tuesday.
Courtesy photo |

The Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday delayed deciding on sweeping changes to the way special events are regulated, citing philosophical concerns about government’s role in property owners’ affairs and a voluminous proposal they wanted more time to digest.

Over the course of a two-hour meeting, commission members were filled in on the suggested amendments to the county’s special events land-use code. The presentation was given by county planner Mike Kraemer and consultant Alan Richman, a private planner hired by the county to research how other counties grapple with both small- and large-scale functions.

It was the Planning and Zoning Commission’s first crack at the proposed regulations, which came after Pitkin County commissioners on June 18 passed a moratorium on the construction of temporary structures on land zoned rural and remote. The moratorium expires March 18.

Until that time, the county is eying ways to adjust its land-use code so that events such as June’s private wedding in Little Annie Basin don’t happen again. A temporary chapel was erected, along with a 27,000-square-foot tent for the reception, and other structures, to accommodate the wedding of Alexandra Steel and James Scott.

Despite public outcry, the June wedding was held at Little Annie Basin, which is located on the backside of Aspen Mountain and is area zoned rural and remote by the county, because the owner of the land, John Miller, didn’t charge a fee for the event. That exposed a loophole in the county’s land-use code that doesn’t permit commercial activity in rural and remote zones, so Miller didn’t need to obtain a temporary commercial-use permit.

Meanwhile, some members of the commission, which will revisit the amended code at its next meeting Jan. 20, questioned if the wide-ranging regulations were a knee-jerk reaction to the June wedding gala. The special-event regulations wouldn’t just apply to rural and remote zones; in their current iteration, they also would be enforced, with varying sets of rules, to properties in Aspen and Basalt’s urban growth boundary and those areas zoned as rural.

The granting of special-use permits would be contingent on the number of attendees at the event, the frequency of the events, music, fireworks and other components.

“I think the reason we’re here is rural and remote ­— that’s what the public outcry was about,” said commission member Trent Palmer, who several times remarked that the wedding was the driving force behind the broad changes being proposed.

He added, “I’m not sure we need it in rural areas and I’m not sure we need it in the urban growth boundary. … The rights that you have as a property owner are fundamental and I think you have to be sensitive to that.”

Richman said there has been some public confusion about how strict the amendments would be.

“This does not mean no more fun in Pitkin County, nobody gets to do events,” he said. “That’s not what this is about.”

But most in attendance agreed that there should be, at some level, some government involvement when events have an impact on their neighborhood, whether it’s generated through loud noise or parked vehicles chocking up roads.

For Planning and Zoning members Monty Thompson and Jim VeShancey, much of it boils down to public impact. Kraemer agreed.

“I don’t want to get into the job of issuing a permit every time there’s a gathering at someone’s house,” Kraemer said.

Some property owners also spoke out against the amended land-use code. Among them was Cathy Markle, who, on behalf of the Emma Caucus, said residents were against the county requiring private parties to have a special-use permit.

“People are very concerned about the county imposing further regulations on private land,” she said. “How you do things or how you want to do things on your property should not be subject to special permits.”

Likewise, East Sopris Creek Road resident Bill Luerhrs, who owns 35 acres of land with his wife, said he didn’t see the need for special-use permits for all events.

“Having us go through a permitting process because I’m going to have a Fourth of July party on my property and a boombox, I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said.

Commission Chair Mirte Mallory said the extra two weeks will give Planning and Zoning more time to mull over the proposed amendments, some of which gained a positive reception. She said that it’s important that the commission hear more public comment before it decides whatever direction to take.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is an advisory board, and its pending decision doesn’t require adoption by the Board of County Commissioners. However, Planning and Zoning does wield influence with the board, and there is a sense of urgency to get something in place before the moratorium expires in March, as event organizers are planning for the summer, said Cindy Houben, the county’s community development director.