Letter: Let’s guide a thoughtful discussion
Let’s guide a thoughtful discussion
“Variance control may become election issue” (The Aspen Times, Jan. 3) reports on proposals to repeal the City Council’s power to grant land use variances, at least in Aspen’s “core.” The proposal by Bert Myrin and Mick Ireland would refer any variance request over a de minimis amount to Aspen’s voters. Arguments have been offered pro and con. Not vouching for the strength of any argument, here is a reasonably complete list.
Pros (arguments for removing Council’s variance-granting power):
1. The council inevitably devotes too much time to variance requests while neglecting the council’s more basic functions, such as supervising city management. Removing this power would allow more time for other functions only the council can perform.
2. Knowing the council inevitably grants major variances, developers over-invest in real estate, virtually requiring a variance bail out from the council. If the council were powerless to grant variances, developers wouldn’t over-invest and wouldn’t require the variances.
3. Fights over significant variance requests are unnecessarily divisive in the community.
4. The variances inevitably granted can negatively impact the character that many locals prefer for our city.
5. Significant variances still would be possible, but the case would have to be strong to win a public vote.
Cons (arguments against removing Council’s variance-granting power):
1. Because variances have a widespread effect on the city, elected officials should make the call.
2. Because no two real estate developments are alike, the system should not be so restrictive as to prevent reasonable variances.
3. It isn’t necessary to repeal the council’s power, it’s only necessary to elect different council members.
Some proponents of clipping the council’s wings promote a ballot referendum to change the city charter. Some on the council suggest the proponents discuss their ideas with the council to determine whether a commonly supported change can be devised. Discussion is good but can easily lead down blind alleys. Here are some suggestions that might help guide a discussion:
1. Determine whether the problem is structural or personal to individuals on the council. If people can agree the problem recurs regardless of how many “slow growthers” are on the council, a structural change is needed.
2. Determine whether a relaxation of the land-use and zoning rules applied to all could alleviate much of the pressure on the council to grant variances. If the rules are too strict, they should be amended as part of a solution.
3. Consider other ways to involve elected officials in the decision-making. The city’s budget tops $100 million a year. Some think that is large enough to justify a council that devotes itself to oversight of city operations without the time to deal with land-use cases one at a time. If so, why not turn the Planning and Zoning Board into an elected body that could satisfy those who think land-use decisions belong in the hands of elected officials?
4. The council should understand that failing to have reformed the land-use code or otherwise tackle this problem before “activists” seized the initiative is, itself, indicative of poor management by the council and the need to reform the council’s powers. If the council does not act, proponents of change will leave the council in the dust, gather the necessary signatures to put their proposal on a ballot and change the city charter without participation by the City Council.
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