Scott Bayens: Soak the rich or save the planet?
A couple of months back, on what was to be another normal mid-October morning, there was a frenzy of online activity and phone calls among developers, local real estate brokers, builders, architects and land-use planners. It was all the result of an urgent email from a member of the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Committee outlining a proposal to significantly overhaul the local building code. The suggestions came in the form of a rather broad and wide-ranging recommendation from Planning and Zoning to the Board of County commissioners. Suddenly and with minimal notice, the issue was before county leadership without much (if any) public comment.
To be fair, there were hints this might be coming for those paying attention, but here it was, sitting at the feet of those it could most affect.
It turns out, over the previous six months, the Pitkin County Community Development staff had presented Planning and Zoning with a veritable cornucopia of suggested modifications, the most significant of which would reduce allowable residential home sizes and substantially increase building permit fees.
To better understand the proposal, one need learn a few new acronyms. Many of the new rules stem from a desire to ramp up the county’s REMP fees. REMP stands for Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, the majority of which goes to CORE. CORE stand for Community Office for Resource Efficiency. CORE was established in 1999 as part of the Aspen-Pitkin County Energy Conservation Code and manages the funds collected through REMP.
To give you an idea of the scope and breadth of these administrative contemplations, here’s a list of the changes that were approved in August and September and subsequently presented to the BOCC in October:
• REMP fee adjustment for exterior snowmelt — Increase current REMP fee from $34 per square foot to $72 per square foot.
• REMP fee adjustment for large home energy usage — Increase current REMP fee from $1 per square foot for houses exceeding 5,750 square feet to $45.45 per square foot for home sizes between 5,750 square feet and 8,250 square feet and $60.60 per square foot for homes larger than 8,250 square feet. The first 5,750 square feet in either size category is exempt from fees.
• New REMP fee for electric heat tape — New fee of $30/linear foot with exemption for the first 150 linear feet. No offsets for energy efficient construction.
• New REMP fee for exterior swimming pools — New fee of $285 per square feet. No offsets for energy efficient construction.
• New REMP fee for exterior spas — New fee of $370 per square foot. No offsets for energy efficient construction.
• New REMP fee for winter construction.
BUILDING CODE CHANGES
• Reduce maximum allowable house size throughout the county to 10,750 square feet.
• Revise TDR redemption rate. The first 2,500 square feet in excess of 5,750 square feet will still require one TDR. However, each subsequent increase of 2,500 square feet will require an additional two TDRs.
• Eliminate floor area exemption for below-grade space.
• Eliminate 4,000 square feet below grade space allowed by current code. Require continuous exterior insulation on homes greater than 5,000 square feet.
• Lower the maximum allowable U-Values for glazing in homes greater than 5,000 square feet.
After an initial meeting before BOCC in October, the issue was taken up again in late November with no decision as of this printing. At that time, at least one commissioner voiced concern over “the lack of adequate public input.” Now it seems, the issue will return to the group Jan. 23, when public comment will most likely begin in earnest around the contentious proposal.
For some, it’s about controlling what is perceived as out-of-control growth, limiting energy consumption and attempting to curb the amount of waste new builds and remodels can generate. Others, who understand and even support the idea of conservation and greener projects, say they fear the changes, at least in their current form, could have “a long-term depressive effect on local construction.”
As of this August, the balance in the REMP fund stood at more than $7 million. So therein lies the rub. While CORE debates how to spend this recent windfall, local officials and their staff want to raise the fees. James VeShancey, Vice-Chairman of Pitkin County Planning and Zoning as well as a local owners rep for high-end construction projects said recently, “It just doesn’t sit well with me.”
He contends the changes are a bridge too far and are an attempt to “soak the rich.” At least one local official stated publicly the new requirements would represent “a drop in the bucket” for wealthy second homeowners. But VeShancey disagrees.
“These guys can just as easily take their projects to Telluride or other mountain states if it doesn’t pencil out here,” he said.
When estimating costs for a future project using the new calculation, VeShancey said the increase was “well over a million dollars.”
Rather than penalize individuals and developers by imposing higher fees, VeShancey suggests the use of incentives or “offsets” to encourage the installation of solar and geo-thermal systems, additional insulative materials and triple-pane windows. As proposed by Community Development and Planning and Zoning, there would be fewer offsets for energy-efficient construction. That’s counter-intuitive, said VeShancey.
“If I can convince a client to install a ($90,000) solar system rather than pay a ($200,000) fee, that’s a no brainer and has more impact over time.”
Local developers also contend high-end residential construction contributes significantly to the local economy and does so regardless of socio-economic class. Each of these large scale projects can provide full-time employment to 100 to 150 workers for at least two to three years. They argue a huge percentage of the local economy is related to this kind of activity.
So the stage is set for what is sure to be a contentious debate over property rights versus uncontrolled growth; economic impact versus environmental protection; and property values versus funding for the public good. In terms of monster homes with swimming pools and snowmelt for the driveway, some would argue that genie left the bottle long ago and are now part of the Aspen legacy and landscape. But for others, future growth needs to be checked for future generations and energy conservation required rather than simply encouraged.
Scott Bayens is a realtor with Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty who specializes in TDRs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.