John Colson: Good news for wilderness, city voters |

John Colson: Good news for wilderness, city voters

John Colson
Hit & Run

I’m not often encouraged by the headlines these days, as readers may understand.

But two recent developments have raised my spirits — the news that the city of Aspen has agreed to abandon its plans to reserve rights to build dams in the Castle Creek and Maroon Creek valleys, and that a judge agreed that a lawsuit, aimed at forcing a public vote on Aspen’s planned new City Hall, could continue through the courts.

Both stories signaled to me that at least here, if not in many other locales, we are not completely enslaved to the gods of bureaucratic momentum and civic hubris.

It’s been instructive to watch the city’s ongoing efforts to wrestle with the likelihood that climate change (whether or not you believe it is worsened by human activities) is quickly moving our region into a phase of radical drought.

Vastly reduced snow loads in the mountains have caused a crisis in the huge reservoirs at Lake Powell, Lake Mead and others farther down the Colorado River, as the notorious “bathtub ring” shows water levels sinking lower every year.

Aspen’s leaders, understandably, have reacted to this drought-related news in recent years by moving to figure out ways to store water from the mountain snow melt, a big part of which was to hold onto water rights meant to fill the two reservoirs in wilderness areas along the creeks mentioned earlier. Building them and filling them, the thinking went, might save us from perishing from thirst.

One problem is that, if these dams were built, by then there is no certainty that our mountain tops would have enough snow to fill them up. Weather experts have been predicting since the 1980s that warming global temperatures might push the snow line northward, perhaps as far as Montana, and recent snow-depth data has borne out those predictions.

Then there is the additional complication that building dams in wilderness areas is not only contrary to the national Wilderness Act, it also is a horrible precedent at a time when what remains of our national wild areas already is under siege by commercial and mining interests.

In coming to an agreement with several organizations that involves moving the water storage rights out of the two valleys and onto other locations in the upper Roaring Fork, the town has agreed that while the need for water has not changed, there are ways to meet that need without drowning the wilderness.

And as experts in the ways of water use will tell anyone who asks, the most important way to help humanity survive the coming droughts is conservation by residents, businesses and governments throughout the Colorado River basin.

The other bit of good news, about the fight over Aspen’s proposed new City Hall, is less dire in its causes and its consequences.

But it’s important, nonetheless.

Last week District Court Judge John Neiley ruled that a lawsuit filed by Aspen resident Marcia Goshorn (along with co-disputants Toni Kronberg and Steve Goldenberg) can move forward.

Goshorn, who has a history of contentious activism in local politics for decades, maintains that the city acted illegally when it enacted an ordinance in 2017 approving a 37,000 -square-foot office building between Rio Grande Park and the Galena Plaza adjacent to the county library.

Goshorn’s suit argues (and the city disputes) that Aspen’s home rule charter calls for a public vote on the matter, because it changes the use of public open space that was purchased with open-space tax money.

The city, however, believes that the ordinance in question is not subject to a citizen referendum because it was an “administrative” act and not a “legislative” one, among other technical arguments.

Judge Neiley, unfortunately for the city’s position, ruled earlier this year that it was, in fact, a legislative decision. The city subsequently asked him to find that Goshorn lacks the legal standing to proceed with the lawsuit, a request that the judge has now denied, though he ruled that Kronberg does not have the same standing because she lives outside the city limits.

As is always the case when attorneys are involved, there are numerous other factors at work here, more complex and bewildering than can be explained easily.

Suffice it to note that the city’s $22 million plan now is on hold, and it appears the voters may well get a chance to weigh in directly in some future election.

Which, all in all, is a good thing, I believe.

A project of this size, in the middle of town, surely is a big-enough deal that the voters should get this chance to voice their feelings.

After all is said and done, of course, the voters might well conclude that the city was right all along and that the building should move ahead.

In that case, all that was lost is a little time and money, two things that Aspen has in pretty good supply.

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