Sullivan weighs in on transportation, growth
In running to unseat incumbent County Commissioner Shellie Roy Harper, local painter and anti-rail activist Michael O’Sullivan is making his second bid for public office in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Last spring, he placed third in a four-way race for mayor of Aspen. He was also part of an unsuccessful effort led by Common Sense Alliance founder Jeffrey Evans to recall four Pitkin County commissioners – including Harper.
O’Sullivan, 40, has lived in Aspen on and off since 1976, when he moved here with his family and entered Aspen High School, graduating in 1978.
After spending a year as a chairlift operator, he left town to attend Fort Lewis College and earn a degree in business administration with a minor in economics.
Then it was back to Aspen for “a couple of years” before heading out again for five years as a stockbroker in south Florida, Atlanta, Georgia and Fort Collins.
Returning to Aspen in 1991, he set up his own painting business and began doing a little property management. He now works as the manager at the Clarendon Condominiums on Durant Avenue, where he lives with his wife and their 5-week-old daughter.
Asked why he is getting into the District 3 county commissioner race, he said, “I love this town, and I’ve been following politics in this town for a quarter-century.”
And these days, he said, there is a certain segment of the county’s population that is not being represented, namely people like him, people who are “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative” and who believe government in this county has gotten too big and “heavy handed.” Transportation An example of an area where his constituency feels ignored, he said, is the commissioners’ continued interest in building a commuter train between Glenwood Springs and Aspen. He said that recently the county board agreed to spend $300,000 to continue with the Corridor Investment Study, an ongoing investigation into the potential uses of the publicly-owned railroad corridor between Aspen and Glenwood.
O’Sullivan believes this is a direct contradiction of the will of county voters, who two years ago passed a resolution instructing the county to stop spending money on rail studies until after the expansion of State Highway 82 to four lanes has been completed.
On another front of the local transportation battles, O’Sullivan says he is not a supporter of the proposed Rural Transportation Authority, which is on the Nov. 7 ballot and would establish a valleywide taxing district to support mass transit. Proponents say it is needed to provide money for the cash-strapped Roaring Fork Transit Agency, but O’Sullivan disagrees.
O’Sullivan said his understanding of the issue is that there is a $7.5 million “mass transit reserve” that could be earmarked for RFTA. That money, he said, is collected by a special countywide sales tax dedicated to transportation programs.
“How can RFTA be short of money?” he asked rhetorically, maintaining that the tax receipts should be used to “zero out” the RFTA budget before being used for anything else.
And if more money is needed, he said, local governments already have bonding authority for $8.5 million that can be used on transportation projects.
“I feel it’s another example of government crying poor,” he declared. “I think the financial condition of RFTA is being misrepresented. I think it’s very efficient.”
When reminded that Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s general manager, is the source of claims that RFTA is in desperate need of a cash infusion, and that he supports the RTA, O’Sullivan argued that Blankenship could do without the RTA.
“He’s not being given the tools he needs to run an even more efficient bus system,” he said, because local government officials are too fixated on rail.
He maintains that the RTA was conceived as a way to fund and build the train, and that all arguments that it is meant to benefit RFTA are misleading.
“They simply put a bus stamp on it,” he said.
He said a better way of boosting RFTA’s revenues would be for downvalley governments to contract with RFTA for bus service.
“Rail is still very much an issue,” he said. “I think the majority of the commissioners are just moving straight forward on rail.” Voicing an argument often raised by Evans, O’Sullivan said there has never been an “up-or-down” vote on rail in Pitkin County.
Asked how he would feel if such a vote were held and the voters came down on the side of a train, he said, “I would respect that vote.”
But in the meantime he promised to try to block delivery of $1 million the federal government recently granted to the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, which owns the railroad right of way and is studying its possible use as a mass transit corridor. Housing O’Sullivan, who is preparing to move into a new home at the Moore affordable housing project west of town, called himself a “staunch supporter” of local government’s efforts to provide affordable housing for the working class.
“I’m for affordable housing, period,” he stated.
But, he said, he differs with elected officials who he said rely too much on government to build such housing.
“For years now, we’ve been ratcheting down the private sector’s ability to build affordable housing,” he maintained. By limiting the prices of the “resident occupied” (RO) category of housing, which is the highest-cost kind of affordable housing and the kind preferred by private developers, government is making it “practically impossible” for the private sector to do its part in solving the housing crisis, O’Sullivan said.
O’Sullivan cited the Alpine Cottages project built by developer Tim Semrau as an example of what the private sector can do. While the RO units cost more than $500,000 each, he said, there are others that range from $120,000 to $210,000.
He said the government will never have enough money to build enough housing, pointing to the Burlingame Ranch project as an example. Government estimates are that it may cost as much as $75 million to build the 225 homes at Burlingame, and O’Sullivan maintained the city’s housing tax revenues will not be up to the job.
“There have been abuses, I grant you,” he continued, citing Castle Ridge and Centennial as projects where costs and management issues have created controversies and problems.
But he said developers can be “forced” to be “more responsible” by such measures as “surety bonds” and carefully thought-out development contracts.
Better uses of public money, he said, are “buy-downs” (use of public money to purchase free-market units and sell them at subsidized prices) and building small, “in-fill” projects in the city’s core commercial area. Growth On the question of government’s role in limiting growth, O’Sullivan said, “There’s no denying that we have to control growth.”
If not for government efforts over the past three decades, he said, “It’s scary to think what the valley floor would look like.”
But, he said, “I would take a much more simplistic approach to growth control.” He said government should simply limit the number of approvals it hands out each year and put “simple caps” on the square footage allowed in each house.
“I think that’s a whole step that the commissioners backed down on,” he said of the county’s recent revisions to growth control regulations.
Asked whether a “simplistic” approach might run afoul of state and federal laws, he said he was unsure. “It might equate to a taking,” he conceded.
As for commercial growth, he said, “I certainly would do everything I could to discourage it,” unless “it serves a fundamental need,” such as a small grocery store in the midst of a project. Campaign finances The issue of campaign spending and contribution limits is one O’Sullivan said is critical.
“I support disclosure,” he said, meaning he believes the public has a right to know who contributes to candidates and issues campaigns.
But, he added, “I simply don’t believe that votes can be bought. People are too smart for that.”
He said he feels the county rules on spending limits are unconstitutional, and that it is not the government’s job to police campaign spending.
“I simply don’t believe that’s the role for our government,” he said.
Asked whether he feels the will of the voters is out of line on campaign spending limits, since the voters approved the county’s rules, he replied, “They didn’t understand that the Supreme Court has already ruled on this.”
Asked for examples of why he felt the limits are wrong, he returned to the debate over a valleywide train. He said the city of Aspen once spent public money on pro-rail brochures that he said “promoted one side of the issue. How are people supposed to get the other side of the issue out there? They cannot count on the media to do it.”
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In the 1960s The Red Onion as the Aspen Ski Club would host an annual ski fashion preview, which in addition to clothing also included live music and a strip auction.