Stirling: Let our representative democracy work
I generally commend residents who take the time and make the effort to challenge the authority of the City Council. However, in the case of the proposed charter amendment, it is not the sitting council with whom they have a bone to pick. This current council has passed three development proposals in the zones spotlighted by the proposed charter amendment: the Molly Gibson, the Sky Hotel and Base1 across from City Market. None of these were passed with any variances. I believe this council has been prudent and is already looking out for best long-term interests of Aspen’s residents.
The proposed charter amendment, asking voter authorization of certain land-use variances, is the wrong instrument entirely to be proposing to address that council’s allegedly being overly generous with benefits to developers and/or to restore the balance between the resort and the town. The charter is Aspen’s constitution, and our charter addresses how we govern ourselves and is not a document that should be addressing land use, environmental control and zoning issues. Any group of U.S. citizens who were unhappy with the president and his cabinet for allowing public buildings to be built too massive or tall would not even suggest that the Constitution be amended to address such an issue. It would be dealt with by petitions or through legislative action. Currently in Aspen, any legislative rezoning or planned-development ordinance passed by the City Council can be challenged and passed onto a vote by residents. There is and always has been a mechanism that enables unpopular City Council actions to be taken to a vote.
TABOR, which amended the Colorado Constitution, has had unintended consequences that still haunt state government. Who would not vote for an amendment asking voter approval for any tax increases? However, because this TABOR amendment is now etched in stone as an amendment to the Colorado Constitution, it continues to cause negative economic problems for the Colorado state budget.
This charter amendment asks whenever there are variances granted in any development approval for height, mass, affordable housing or parking, they must be submitted to the voters at the ensuing spring or fall election. I believe such a proposal makes a mockery of the representative democracy we live in. We elect council members and a mayor for two- to four-year terms. We choose the people who we believe will have the best long-term interest of the greater community at heart. They are guided by the city land-use code. We elect them, knowing they will have a certain leeway and flexibility to use their judgment, as each development application is different. Each period in time is different. Every site is different. The city is always at a different time of need. Having the option to grant variances is an essential land-use planning tool. It gives the staff and the council the flexibility to reshape a development proposal to make it more effective, successful, responsive to the resorts’ needs (hot beds, competitive beds, amenities, community benefits, etc.) and to add character to our unique resort town.
Ordinance 9, proposed by the Community Development Office and subsequently modified and passed by the City Council, 5-0, Monday, gives the council slight leeway to increase mass and height and gives no relief for modifying affordable-housing requirements. Parking is not addressed. Appropriately, the council removed any requirement in Ordinance 9 for such variances to be taken to the voters. These modifications to our city code were appropriate and timely.
Taking variances of any kind to the electorate is just not good nor smart governing. The code is the guide for directing council members, together with the Aspen area improvement plan, and gives council members the framework and limitations to determine what is in the city’s best interest.
Rarely are variances granted as gifts, favors or bonuses. The reasons for variances could be geographical, aesthetic, related to a particular neighborhood’s idiosyncrasies, involve historic preservation, view plane protection, be in response to particular economic phenomena or long-range community benefits. In my experience, variances are almost always granted sparingly and carefully. The limits in the code set the standard and provide direction and are like a community blueprint. For example, after perhaps pushing the envelope too far on a couple of downtown approvals (the CORE building and the Aspen Art Museum), the previous council lowered the height in the downtown core to 28 feet. That was the former council’s way of responding to the hue and cry from residents by amending the height in that zone.
So, do not tie the hands of the council but give the council the room to breathe and make informed variances, if needed or if applicable, which can improve, enhance and even give a good project a better chance to succeed if the project is in the community’s best interest.
Let our representative democracy do its work. As a resident, I am not interested in going to the ballot box to make zoning decisions, which this charter amendment proposes. So in May, please reject the charter amendment. Let reason prevail. In my experience, those who know the most about the land-use applications are the applicants, the council, the Community Development staff, the local professionals and a small group of experienced, interested residents, as it takes hundreds of hours to be prepared and ready to take on these applications. These land-use applications are complicated and take time to comprehend. If all of this was so easy, we would not be having this spirited discussion. Do not hog-tie our elected officials.
Work hard to analyze the people we elect or vote against. Question them and study them. Then, let them do the work they have been elected to do. Turn them out at the next election, if need be. You will rarely agree every time with even your favorite elected official. Thank goodness we live in a representative democracy.
Bill Stirling is a former mayor of Aspen.
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