The man-made mountain out on McLain Flats |

The man-made mountain out on McLain Flats

Michael Cleverly

Let me guess ” you too have wondered what was up with the huge berm on McLain Flats Road that completely obscured one of the most spectacular views in the Roaring Fork Valley. If you drove that road from Woody Creek to Aspen in the past week it went something like this: view, view, view, berm, berm, berm, view, view, Boogie Weinglass’ place.

The giant machinery and massive amounts of soil were sitting in front of the site of the so-called “invisible house” that was recently approved by Pitkin County and endorsed by the Woody Creek Caucus. Now I realize that I’ve written about this topic before, and with a small measure of disapproval. I also realize that no one likes to watch the beating of a dead horse, but this is new.

The project, which involves a 13,500-square-foot house being built on a lot zoned for a 5,700-foot house, was allowed to proceed because the principals (the Smith family of Texas and their development team, which includes local architect Charles Cunniffe) convinced the county and the neighbors that they had tweaked their plan to make the structure “virtually invisible.” They said the view ” which is protected by several county ordinances ” wouldn’t be impacted by the building or the landscaping.

I don’t know ” maybe the term “virtually invisible” means that you can’t see it on your computer. I personally have a hard time using the word “invisible” to describe a pile of dirt that obliterates an entire mountain range. You used to be able to watch hundreds of elk grazing and snoozing in that meadow; with that pile of dirt there, you couldn’t see a herd of dinosaurs in that field, let alone the mountains beyond.

The house is supposed to be placed as far from the road as practical with a 4-foot berm running next to the house to help camouflage it. The berm is to be next to the house, not next to the road. The house was designed essentially as a single-story building so as not to impede the view. This means that the footprint of the place would have to be the entire 13,500 square feet. I wrote that you couldn’t possibly have a construction site that size without it looking like ground zero. OK, now it’s ground zero hidden behind a man-made mountain. Why didn’t I think of that?

To ensure that those pesky elk stay gone, the crafty folks with the graders and loaders have scraped the entire meadow behind the berm down to bare earth. Nothing to eat on the Smith property now; the damned elk can do their freeloading elsewhere.

A while back there was a rumor going around that the project was a spec from the get-go. This was after a great deal of crying and wringing of hands by the Smiths about needing 13,500 square feet of living space because they have grandchildren! Sources acquainted with the family seem split in their opinions as to whether these folks will ever occupy the place. It doesn’t matter ” the fact is that once the project got approved these people can do whatever they want with it. They can move in, sell it, or rent it out to Michael Jackson. One thing we all know is that, in the Roaring Fork Valley, there will be a for-sale sign eventually. It’s just a matter of when. I wonder if this ever occurs to the people who approve these projects?

After my first column on this subject, I got a call from an old friend who had served on the planning and zoning commission for years. She said she couldn’t count the number of times that she heard statements to the effect of “sure it’s a three-story building, but it will read as a two-story building” when people were trying slip something by that exceeded existing zoning. Of course the rich would eventually get their way, and the project would go forward. She said that every single time, without exception, the three-story building ended up “reading” as a three-story building. She’d never heard the “invisible” line before, but she was dubious, apparently with good reason. I think her point was that people lie.

The people who approved this project didn’t just knuckle under to rich greedheads; they rolled over and begged to have their tummies rubbed. What ever happened to the concept of public officials looking out for the public’s interest? These people do not necessarily have to allow the use of transferable development rights to exceed zoning every time some rich guy asks. Zoning exists to protect the public interest, to preserve the quality of an environment. This situation is a clear case of the wealthy buying their way around zoning to the great detriment of the public good.

As the pile of dirt grew, the county planning department received what can best be described as a shitstorm of calls wondering what the hell was going on. When contacted by this newspaper the project manager exhibited a “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” attitude, showing the same kind of sensitivity that was shown to the elk. After a visit from county officials it was decided that the dirt pile was actually being temporarily “stored” next to the road, and would be moved within the next few days (hopefully by the time this column appears). If you’ve kind of forgotten why you hate the rich, you could have taken a spin out to McLain Flats last week and been reminded.

The elk are wondering why you have to scrape every blade of grass off several acres to build a house.

This is a very poor start to a project that a lot of people already despised.

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