Marolt: Burnt out on anti-holiday light ordinance |

Marolt: Burnt out on anti-holiday light ordinance

Roger Marolt
Roger This

In the grand scheme of things I don’t suppose it matters much. But, as a matter of principle, it is an absolute outrage!

I didn’t remember the new city of Aspen ordinance on Christmas lights until I was going through some records at City Hall researching a piece on the Aspen Art Museum and stumbled across the relevant documents. It was such a small issue compared with the overall approvals that led to the most controversial downtown development in the past two decades that I think most people completely forgot about it. It was added as an afterthought and that is exactly what it became.

Here’s the thing, though; the ordinance becomes effective May 1 of this year and, while it may not have a huge impact on the future of Aspen or even change the current state of things very much, it will become a great source of irritation to a great many residents, if not forever, at least for this year and possibly the next until we all get used to it.

Do you remember the big controversy with Christmas lights back in 2011? Not many people do, but it was a big deal at the time. The general feeling was that homes and businesses in Aspen basically fell into the lazy habit of keeping Christmas lights up and lit nearly year-round. The reasons for the outrage ranged from taking away the special effects the luminous decorations provided over the holiday season to being, if not a significant waste of energy, at least a symbol of conspicuous consumption of energy in Aspen.

This sometimes heated debate led to a little-paid-attention-to rider added to the approval of the Aspen Art Museum building that had become a foregone conclusion, at least behind the chamber doors of City Council. It was the birth of City Ordinance 24B(1)(d).

What you need to know is that there will not be stringed lighting adorning any home or business in Aspen from May 1 through Oct. 31 each year, beginning this year. It does not matter if they are lighted at night or not. It doesn’t matter if you put them up temporarily for a Cinco de Mayo party. (A special permit and $500 deposit will be required for that.) Fines will be imposed if the lights are merely on any tree, bush, plant or structure, natural or constructed by humans.

Imagine the Sardy House and the large, lighted tree in the front yard. According to the new rules, that enormous tree will have to be strung and unstrung every year. That is a tremendous burden of cost and effort for the owners to keep that iconic lighted holiday landmark an Aspen tradition.

So, what will violating the new Christmas light ordinance cost? As written, the law states that a fine of 2 cents per light per day for the first week of violation will be imposed. Translation: an averagely decorated small home with about 500 lights strung on the porch would be fined a dollar per day. That’s only $184.00 to keep them up through the banned period every year. Big deal; it’s Aspen!

If only the law remained that user-friendly. After the first week in violation, the fine escalates to 5 cents per light bulb. That’s $25 a day! But wait, it gets worse. Any lights left up after July 1 will be assessed a penalty of 25 cents per light per day, or a whopping $125 bucks per day in our example. For perspective, that would be $15,375, if our hypothetical owner left their lights up July through October.

Imagine if you leave town for a couple of weeks in May and forget to take your lights down before you go. What about second-home owners who don’t show up until the Fourth of July? What about the people who own Sardy House? They must have 10,000 lights on that tree.

To be completely fair, if a property owner has strung energy-efficient lights on their property, the fines can be reduced by 20 percent. But, that owner must demonstrate that their lights burn less than half the energy of conventional lighting. And, get this: proof can be provided by a “conclusive annual analysis of energy bills” or testimony from a “credentialed efficient-energy-usage expert.” Seriously.

Unfortunately, I have saved the worst of this ordinance for last: All of the net proceeds of fines collected will be used to offset the Aspen Art Museum utility costs. And, projections are that the Museum will actually make money from this. This whole thing is someone’s cruel idea of a joke.

Roger Marolt thinks there’s no reason to panic. It’s only April 1 and we have a whole month to take down our lights.

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