Willoughby: Big Oil versus little town | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Big Oil versus little town

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
One b/w negative of a group of people protesting the Humble Oil Company in front of the Pitkin County Courthouse, November 1965. The photo was taken from the second story of the Courthouse, and the protesters are visible past the statue of Lady Justice. The oil company brought suit against Aspen as a result of a local zoning change in 1964; Humble had planned to build a gas station in an area of Aspen's west end that was zoned for business, but was re-zoned differently once their plans were known. A related article is in the Aspen Illustrated News on November 12, 1965 (page 6).
Aspen Historical Society

Tangling with Big Oil with its resources has usually been futile, but Aspen took on Humble Oil in the 1960s and won.

The battle began in 1964 when Humble Oil submitted plans for a gas station to the Planning Commission and the Board of Adjustment for the station’s signs. The property owners were Mr. and Mrs. Jay Dikkers. They moved to Aspen in 1962 with the hope of getting into the lodging business but moved away after their daughter was born.

The problem was that the location for the gas station was on 7th Street and Bleeker on the southwest corner. It was in the West End Business District — not a location thought of as a gas-station location.

Aspen did that zoning in 1956 and also created a signage ordinance to prevent large signs, especially the large ones for a gas station. The commission did not like the idea and to make sure there would not be a gas station in that area, proposed to change the zoning from business to tourist.

Aspen considered it an existential violation of what the zoning and signage was intended to block. While attorneys were battling it out, locals organized. Humble filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Denver over both issues.

The Aspen Times joined the fray with an editorial that included the following: “Each Aspenite, each Aspen visitor, must join the fray. And each must enlist the aid of every friend in every corner of the country. Humble Oil must be made to feel — by letter, by broadcast, by newspaper clipping, by returned credit card, by every possible means — that it will lose more by shattering Aspen’s zoning than it can gain.”

Other cities, Denver one of them, took notice because both the right of cities to have zoning and the signage ordinances was being challenged. It made national news including an article in The New York Times.

One of Aspen’s problems was it made the switch to the tourist zoning, but the application had already been filed under the business zoning. Humble also found that the zoning vote was with other ordinances at the same meeting, and it was not clear that the East End Business District might not have been voted on at that meeting. After several legal maneuvers, the case was finally referred to the local court.

Big Oil Humble had a local Big Oil adversary, one as powerful. R.O. Anderson, the chairman of ARCO but also the chairman of the Aspen Institute, attempted to intervene. He told Humble that, “it would be a mistake” to proceed. He offered the Brand Building as an alternative site. At that time, that property was part of the many properties that Walter Paepcke bought, and the institute could make the deal. It had been a gas station at the time Paepcke bought it. Humble never gave Anderson a response to the offer.

The battle coincided with the local election, and many were angry with the current mayor, Harold “Shorty” Pabst, because he vetoed the attempt to switch the zoning being pushed by fellow City Council member Dr. Robert Bernard. Bernard ran against him and won 317 to 231, the largest turnout for a local election since the mining years.

The case dragged on through 1965. Locals protested Humble Oil in front of the courthouse, the largest local protest other than against the Vietnam War during that period. Many letters filled The Aspen Times with angst and anger sometimes referring to it as the “Humble Bumble.”

In the end, Humble had to be humble. District Judge Clifford Darrow ruled in Aspen’s favor on all accounts, and Humble had to pay the city’s attorney costs.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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