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Jack Johnson: Guest opinion

Jack Johnson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Sometimes I think those of us like me – newcomers to Aspen – are spoiled by all that we find when we move here: the parks, public lands, trails and institutions. We forget (if we ever knew) what a leap of the imagination it took to see the possibilities of a nearly deserted old mining town and, through hard work, philanthropy and political activism, create what we today enjoy but take a bit for granted.

Take the proposal now before the Aspen Planning and Zoning Commission to subdivide the Given Institute, which was donated, apparently without restriction, in the ’70s by Elizabeth Paepcke to the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. There are several interesting aspects for public policy at play: zoning, buildings and sites, the pressure on Aspen institutions to convert to residential zoning and the immunity of public institutions from zoning laws.

It’s been my understanding from advice I’ve received while serving on planning boards that it has been the policy of officials throughout Colorado to act as if (per legislation carving out immunity from local zoning laws for primary schools) all taxing jurisdictions are immune from the underlying zoning laws of other jurisdictions.

Following this interpretation, Aspen could purchase a home site in Cherry Creek ignore all zoning laws and build a skyscraper or tannery (or a bordello, for that matter) in a residential zone, or Denver could act similarly in our West End. Clearly, this is absurd and should be settled instead of being de facto law.

Of even greater concern to Aspen public policy is the argument heard before, but most recently regarding the Given, that “boards of directors of Aspen nonprofits exercising their fiduciary responsibility must maximize the institution property’s underlying free-market residential value.”

True enough for them, but bad public policy for a town dependent on these institutions and the contributions they make to our identity and economy. Aspen is many things to many people but its reason for being a town at all, today, is based at least in part on recreation and arts/culture education. The arts/culture segment of our economy was estimated at $60 million just a few years ago, and allowing institutions to convert to residential zoning negatively impacts our economic diversity and ability to thrive.

The political inability or unwillingness to remove the underlying possibility for institutional conversion to residential contributes to the tremendous value of the Given Institute. If this property were zoned only for educational purposes the value would be more realistic and it would not be threatened with residential development.

Make no mistake, in its desire to maximize the value of the property the school is acting wisely and on behalf of all Coloradans. But they aren’t acting in Aspen’s best interest.

The university proposes three large houses for the 2.5-acre property. The university itself does not wish to become a land developer; instead, it is acting on behalf of others to create exemptions from the normal review standards and processes – exemptions a developer could never hope to receive without the university’s help.

The exemption from the environmental impact review is a direct threat to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), the nature preserve located in the river bottom below the Given, and a threat to our reliance on zoning. For surely this is sufficient reason for the ACES board to reconsider its mission and presence in Aspen and make the same argument: “Our ability to fulfill our mission is compromised by this development, and therefore it is our fiduciary responsibility to also seek conversion to free-market residential. We will use the proceeds to concentrate on our work at Rock Bottom Ranch and Ashcroft.” Not that they will, but if they did who could blame them?

So where’s the tipping point? Being economically dependent on the special events these institutions conduct, when does this conversion to free-market residential compromise Aspen’s economy and identity?

Visit this property; it’s publicly owned. Ignore the building; it’s great but its preservation misses the point. The true value is this site. Walk to the terrace that looks over ACES and determine for yourself if a bunch of huge houses looming over it is good public policy and if they’ll have an impact on the wildlife and mission of the nature preserve.

You should make your voice heard; you may send e-mail for inclusion in planning packets to jackie.lothian@ci.aspen.co.us. I also encourage people to attend today’s joint public hearing on the Given, which will be held from 5-7 p.m. downstairs at Aspen City Hall.

It should also be a clear indication of the politics of those running for City Council and mayor this spring – who among them will see the big picture and take a clear stand on these issues?


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