Paul Andersen: Luxury second homes are an Aspen dichotomy

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Two weeks ago, I suggested taxing luxury second homes as albatrosses tied around the neck of a community that has made a pledge to address climate change. This was not about taxing wealth, but taxing the waste that’s undeniably contributing to climate change.

And yet, the second home phenomenon has long been the underpinning of our economy, from Aspen to Parachute, as luxury second homes fuel the engines of growth and prosperity. The carbon footprint of these homes and their offsite impacts are enormous, but we don’t act on that because their widespread benefits offer countervailing concessions.

Scores of mostly vacant, energy-sucking personal pleasure palaces would be considered a scourge, but they are redeemed as the bread and butter of construction crews, service workers and realtors who earn livings, support local businesses and pay taxes as wage-earning citizens.

Many of the residents who choose to live in our region have that choice because of luxury second homes. Growth and environmental concerns aside, employing people is recognized as a societal good, so second homes are deemed a societal good.

In no way does this neutralize the stigma of second home carbon emissions. But ask someone if they would give up their livelihood to help cut carbon by doing away with second homes and, “Hell no!” would be the response.

The lucrative economics of second homes ensures the cultivation of profligate lifestyles. That’s why starter castles are still being built. Last Monday, The Aspen Times reported that luxury homes in Aspen and Pitkin County are still trending.

“Since May 7, the residential property market in Pitkin County has seen impressive sales transactions priced at $11.1 million, $12 million, $15 million, $21.2 million and $22.7 million, harking back to the days before the Great Recession.”

Noted a local property broker: “Nationally, bigger homes and luxury estates have been more difficult to sell. Aspen has been bucking that trend.”

Riding my mountain bike last week on the Glassier Open Space trails, I was taking advantage of the benefits of a 1% share of property taxes for open space and trails. How easy to forget about conspicuous consumption while savoring single-track.

The inconvenient truth that luxury homes contribute to climate change and push growth rates falls on deaf ears because these personal luxury lodges have forever changed the economy of the region.

It’s not just the construction phase of these opulent properties that drives the demand for workers to endure the commute on “Killer 82.” Maintaining these homes is an industry in itself, deriving still more traffic and congestion.

When these second, third and fourth homes are occupied for a month or two each year, the workforce is multiplied again with private chefs, housekeepers, spa service, etc. Most of these workers commute on 82, jamming the roads to serve itinerant owners.

There’s no way to convince real estate developers, architects, contractors, subcontractors, property managers, etc. that climate change is of such dire importance that it overshadows their lucrative careers in creating properties that real estate ads promote with gushing adjectives.

Here’s why, from The Aspen Times: “Aspen paced ahead of last year’s property sales for the first four months of the year, with $351.7 million in total sales volume compared with $263.9 million last year at this time.”

Big money is fostering climate change, whether it’s accrued through Aspen luxury homes or leveraged by national auto makers, gas and oil development, coal production and myriad other resource-intensive industries.

Some culpability has to fall to those who buy these places, spending tens of millions on what any concerned global citizen would consider an appalling affront to environmental and ecological integrity. Nothing is mentioned about putting at risk future generations that will inherit a profligate legacy.

I can only conclude that the First World luxury lifestyle for which the world clamors is inviolate, and when that lifestyle is scaled, it is fundamentally incompatible with the harmonic balance of the natural world, i.e. climate and species.

Because luxury is seen as an entitlement among the highest income producers — the elites — luxury second homes and their carbon offshoots make for a damning dichotomy in Aspen and Pitkin County.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at