Time for a test run in historic preservation? | AspenTimes.com

Time for a test run in historic preservation?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It’s time to put Aspen’s newly overhauled historic preservation regulations to the test, according to the expert consultant who helped the city draft them.

“I think we’ve got a good revised ordinance to work with,” Debbie Abele told the Aspen City Council on Monday. “Now we need to see how it works.

“I think at this juncture, it’s going to be hard to say how you can make it better before you operate under it,” said Abele, the Phoenix-based consultant who first met with the council a year ago.

But council members weren’t ready to adopt the new legislation last night, putting off final action until at least March 11, when the discussion will resume.

The council continued to wrestle with a couple of threshold issues – whether historic designation should be voluntary, at least for post-World War II buildings, and whether the city should be considering buildings that are less than 50 years old for the designation at all.

Property owners who are affected by the city’s consideration of post-war structures continued to press the council to make the program voluntary, at least for them. The historical designation, and the added layer of regulation that comes with it, should not be applied to post-war architecture without the owner’s consent, they argued.

Property owners and council members appear to agree the city should continue to protect its 19th-century structures, including its ornate Victorians, miner’s cottages and grand downtown buildings, without consulting the owners.

It may be possible to establish a bifurcated program that would withstand a court challenge, according to City Attorney John Worcester. Such a program would entail mandatory regulation of 19th-century buildings but impose protections on post-World War II buildings only with the owner’s consent, he said.

The experts, however, advised against treating newer buildings that the city feels have historic value differently than its oldest structures.

“It leads you down a very thorny, problematic [road] when you start treating properties differently,” Abele said.

The city can, however, judge its newer buildings by a stricter set of criteria than it might its old Victorians, she said.

“It will be your challenge to decide if properties that haven’t stood the test of time are significant,” Abele told the council.

City demolition records indicate the average age of a building that is razed in Aspen is 38.6 years, added Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer.

“We won’t have the luxury of waiting until a building is 50 years old to discuss it,” she said. “It will probably be gone.”

The city suspended its attempt to add post-World War II buildings to its historic inventory after the nomination of various properties produced an uproar among affected property owners some 18 months ago.

Since then, the Historic Preservation Commission, with the input of experts and the community, has produced two new ordinances that will replace existing sections of the city code related to historic preservation.

One ordinance establishes new criteria and revamps the review process for the designation of buildings. A second ordinance will establish the perks the city will afford the owners of designated properties to help offset the burdens that come with the added layer of regulation.

But once again on Monday, the council heard from property owners who worry that there’s nothing particularly advantageous to them in the benefits package, or that the designation will slash the value of their property, since a protected house cannot be razed.

“We feel very strongly that we’re being picked on in this thing,” said homeowner Alec Merriam, whose Roaring Fork Drive house, built in 1947, was selected for possible inclusion on the historic inventory.

Attorney Paul Taddune noted the city has decried the loss of several public buildings, including the Lincoln and Washington schools. Those structures were too costly for the public to save, but it expects private property owners to do just that, he said.

The city won’t want to designate the Aspen Ice Garden as historic even though the city ice rink would probably qualify under the proposed criteria, Taddune predicted.

“I can bet you right now the council’s not going to designate it historic because it won’t be profitable to do so,” he said.

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