Bayens: Time to get out of our own way

Scott Bayens
Deeded Interest
Scott Bayens
Scott Bayens

I’ve been following the story of the Grand Valley High School senior who was denied her request to wear a multicultural sarape at her graduation ceremony, an expression of her Hispanic heritage as well as her U.S. citizenship. The district took a hard line and said she would not be allowed to walk if she wore it.

She and her supporters then made a personal appeal to the school board. When she was denied, she took her case to U.S. District Court. On Friday the court sided with the district’s original position not to allow the sash. Predictably, the controversy made national news.

Two days ago, Naomi Peña Villasano walked across the stage in Parachute and was handed her hard-earned sheepskin while wearing the home-made garment that caused all the fuss in the first place. Not one person or administrator stopped her. The Earth kept spinning.

To me, the whole affair was an embarrassment. Why was this the hill the district decided to die upon? And die they did in the court of public opinion. 

Ironic, too, this student asked for permission. She could have easily thrown the thing over her shoulders at the last minute, and no one would have noticed. One of my college classmates streaked out of the stadium after he got his diploma. Both defined acts of defiance and courage that are rare these days.

Recent events got me thinking about all the drama and grandstanding we’ve seen over the past few years specific to local government. Similar to the absurdity of the sarape stand-off, we’ve watched Aspen leaders enact an “emergency” moratorium on new residential construction, prompting lawsuits and eventually a change in leadership after the last election.

The powers that be at the time placed a limit on the number of demo permits to be issued annually, causing more disruption and unintended consequences. After that, we argued about the impacts of short-term rentals in our local towns and even on the back of Aspen Mountain. 

In Eagle County, a long-fought mid-Roaring Fork Valley proposal to create a new neighborhood that included affordable housing was crushed. This week the Aspen City Council set a public hearing for the Lumberyard, which could set the stage to greenlight the construction of an affordable housing project there. It’s taken more than a decade of debate and delays to get here and is set to cost the taxpayers more than $400 million.

And now we have our first glimpse of a massive rewrite of Pitkin County’s land use code that’s set to reduce the maximum square footage of new homes, as well as dramatically change the transferable development right program. The changes are meant to reduce excessive energy use and our collective carbon footprint, but are aimed primarily at the wealthy who can afford to build larger homes. Overlooked are generational farmers, ranchers and owners of historical mining claims who rely on the sale of TDRS for their retirement.

No matter where each of us might stand on any of these contentious issues and recent decisions, the questions I find myself asking are these: Why can’t we get the hell out of our own way? What is it we are actually trying to accomplish? And why does it all have to be so divisive? 

Lamenting how the Wild West was won and eventually tamed, Mark Knoffler famously sang in “Telegraph Road,” “then came the lawyers, then came the rules.” Similarly, the late Warren Zevon, once an Aspen resident, wrote the song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” 

I’m not bagging on attorneys but rather making the point that the more we litigate and regulate, the more freedom and innovation we stifle, which is the opposite of why so many independent, anti-authoritarians came here in the first place.

I’m not suggesting we abandon the rule of law, but rather a return to common sense — the removal of some of the bureaucratic barriers we’ve built that are limiting forward progress. A recent example is the decision by the Board of Colorado Mountain College Trustees to reduce its mill levy next year to help lessen the blow local homeowners are facing after property tax doubled. As a result, there has been some discussion on the local and state levels about providing similar relief for those struggling to keep up.

On the weekend we honor those who fought and often died in foreign wars, it’s worth remembering the men and women of our Greatest Generation were often required to think outside the box, damn the torpedoes, and ignore their own self-preservation for the collective good. Lately, it seems to me, we’ve been too eager to enact limits in the name of progressive change. 

The problem is you can’t punish and fine your way to clean air. You can’t force someone to abandon their beliefs. Point is, legislating change doesn’t always work. The recent overturn of Roe v. Wade proves that. 

Influencing public opinion, inspiring change and encouraging new alternatives … well, that’s another story.

Scott Bayens is a Realtor with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty. Visit his website at and follow him on Instagram at @scott_bayens_properties.


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