Aspen planning: Swat that fly! Shoot that puppy! |

Aspen planning: Swat that fly! Shoot that puppy!

There’s an old song that goes, “Mama, get the hammer, there’s a fly on Papa’s head.”

Googling around the Internet, trying to find the origin of that classic tune, I stumbled over this quote from a Marine Corps major: “Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

OK. Hang onto those two thoughts. Now add the National Lampoon magazine cover featuring a picture of a nervous-looking puppy with a pistol pointed at its head and the caption: “Buy this magazine or we’ll kill this dog.”

And there you have it: Aspen politics in a nutshell. Emphasis, as always, on the “nut.”

Today’s case in point: the ongoing uprising of Aspen’s residents against their city government.

The latest act in the drama is the effort to amend the city’s Home Rule charter to … well, to slap the City Council upside the head. Or, more specifically (and somewhat more formally), to take away the council’s power to bend the zoning rules to accommodate developers’ insatiable desires to build more and give back less.

Under the charter amendment, zoning variances to allow bigger buildings, less parking or less affordable housing would have to be approved by a vote of the entire town.

This battle follows last summer’s skirmish over the ill-conceived Lodge Incentive Ordinance, a grab bag of favors to developers. Recap: The council approved that ordinance; a petition drive was launched to overturn it; people flocked to sign the petition; the council scurried to repeal the law before the residents could do it for themselves.

This time around, residents are launching a pre-emptive strike — taking away the council’s power now rather than waiting for that power to be abused again.

The popularity of this move was strikingly clear. Just more than 300 signatures were required to get the amendment on the ballot. Petition-drive organizers easily rounded up more than 1,000.

Caught flat-footed by this massive outpouring of mistrust, the council did its best to react. It proposed an ordinance that would sharply limit its own ability to grant variances.

The council’s ordinance would let it approve minor variances on a case-by-case basis but still require a public vote for anything significant. They’re racing to get it enacted before the charter-amendment election so that voters will have a clear-cut choice.

People I respect have backed the council’s position. They say the charter amendment is too strict; that the council does need a little room to maneuver.

They say the amendment is overkill — swatting flies with a hammer.

But as our marine major pointed out, when you swat a fly with a hammer, that fly stays swatted. Overkill is preferable to underkill.

Some also argue that the council can’t make good decisions with activists always crouched, ready to spring, petitions in hand — in essence, the council’s a puppy and the public can’t be trusted with a loaded gun.

And then there’s the “buyer’s remorse” argument, the idea that, having amended the charter, people will soon regret their action — and find that undoing a charter amendment is extremely difficult.

But that’s the entire point.

If people rely on the council’s self-imposed limits, it would be oh-so-easy for the council to suffer its own “buyer’s remorse” and undo their ordinance. Snap! Just like that.

And that’s the heart of the matter.

People don’t trust City Council.

Successive councils have been unable to stand up to the onslaught of developers and their legal-financial juggernauts.

I said this citizens’ uprising began with the Lodge Incentive ordinance last summer, but its roots go back a decade to the shameful “infill” ordinance.

In that disaster, a well-meaning (I do believe) City Council was led seriously astray by “experts” and wound up approving a set of zoning rules intended to encourage more density in the heart of downtown. More buildings. Taller buildings.

Looking for a bad idea? That was one.

The consultant who led the council over this cliff said that everyone knows Aspen’s a mountain town … so no one needs to actually see the mountains.

(Forget the hammer, Mama. Get my shotgun!)

That act of stupidity provided the launch pad for maneuvers that eventually left us with the Hulks on Hyman. (You know the buildings I’m talking about. Let their unspeakable names remain unspoken.)

And if a weak-minded council steered us into this nasty ditch, then a later chicken-hearted council made things worse by moving to reduce the too-tall building limits without having the courage to classify its action as an “emergency ordinance,” which would have taken effect immediately.

Instead, the old rules remained in effect while the new rules were considered and the town was flooded with applications for too-tall buildings.

Chicken-hearted, outsmarted, overpowered or simply wrongheaded — City Councils have repeatedly proven themselves untrustworthy.

Harsh, I know — and I’m sorry. But look around. The results speak for themselves.

The resdients of Aspen have made it clear, in election after election, what they want: strict growth control.

And the council has not gotten it done.

Yes, they have enacted growth-control regulations. What they have not done is control growth.

Apparently, if we allow them to bend the rules, the rules get bent.

What to do? What to do?

Think flies and hammers. Puppies and pistols.

If the politicians don’t learn their lesson, residents could wind up putting the zoning rules themselves into the city charter.

And that would be a real mess. As if municipal speed limits were written into the Constitution.

But would that real mess be a real problem?

Developers warn that developers would be afraid to develop.

But that’s only a problem if what Aspen needs is more development.

Is that what Aspen needs?

Who gets to decide?

Let’s put it another way: Aspen’s the puppy. Who ought to be holding the gun?

As that famous philosopher Bumper J. Sticker said, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is

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