Stone: A stick in the spokes of the juggernaut
A Stone’s Throw
With city ballots already in the mail, I need to take one last shot at discussing Referendum 1 before it’s too late.
I want to make myself clear this time around.
I add that last remark because I recently saw one of my columns cited by forces opposed to the referendum. They quoted me and said they were surprised to see that I agreed with them.
I was surprised too. Because I do not agree with them.
I suppose that was my fault. Sometimes, I’m more concerned with being clever than being clear. Sorry about that.
So this time, let me be very clear:
I support Referendum 1.
That referendum (as I’m sure you already know) amends the city’s charter to prohibit the City Council from granting zoning variances to developments that want to be bigger or taller or provide less housing or less parking than the code allows. Variances must be approved by the people in a citywide election.
In short, it says that the rules are the rules and everybody has to play by the rules.
Does Aspen need that extra bit of steel in the city’s zoning backbone?
For decades, in election after election, the voters of Aspen have expressed their will very clearly. Time and again, they have chosen City Council majorities that were clearly in favor of strict growth control.
And year after year, the building has continued.
The members of the City Council are intelligent, honest, hardworking and sincere. Even the ones I disagree with. Even the ones upon whom I sometimes heap scorn. (Hey, that’s my job.)
But when they try to stand up to Aspen’s development juggernaut, those good, honest, hardworking council members get run over — and the people’s will turns into roadkill.
Fueled by the vast profits to be made, the juggernaut never relents. It just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding, like the ocean waves, until it finds a crack — one wavering council member, a flaw in the zoning code, a downturn in the economy. Whatever it takes.
Then the waves crash through and the results are painful. And pretty much permanent.
Referendum 1 is reinforcement for the seawall protecting the expressed will of the voters.
It simply says, in the loudest possible way, “We mean it!”
Will it really solve Aspen’s out-of-control-development problem?
Hell no. There’s too much money involved.
The referendum is just a large stick, jammed into the spokes of the careening development bandwagon.
Maybe it will slow things down a little. Maybe (if I can switch my metaphor from bandwagon to bicycle) that stick in the spokes will send the greedy riders over the handlebars for a solid face plant on the asphalt.
And the rest of us will get to cheer.
Although the referendum was placed on the ballot with clear public support, it has been controversial.
Some of its opponents are clearly developers who are counting on a compliant City Council to let them super-size their buildings — and profits.
We know who they are. And we can just say to hell with them.
There are others who oppose the referendum who truly are honest and sincere and have the best interests of Aspen at heart.
They just happen to be misguided. (Hey, that happens.)
They argue that we are supposed to have a “representative government,” in which we trust our elected officials to make the right decisions.
That is a good philosophical point — but this is not the time for philosophy.
If we obey the Biblical injunction and get the lion to lie down with the lamb, it’s the lamb that wants to discuss philosophy. The lion’s only interest is lunch. Specifically, lamb chops.
These philosophical opponents of the referendum also argue that the Aspen city charter is “our constitution.” And land-use rules should not be enshrined in the constitution.
Again: sounds good. But again: wrong.
The land-use rules are in the zoning code, and that code is not being placed in the city charter.
What Referendum 1 says is that the zoning code must be followed. No exceptions.
Consider for a moment the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees free speech. It doesn’t go into nit-picking questions of libel, obscenity or protecting top-secret national security programs.
Those issues — for better or, too often, for worse — are handled in specific laws enacted by Congress.
The Constitution states a principle. The laws handle the details.
And that’s what we’re looking at here: A simple, clear statement of principle, enshrined in the charter and backed up by a detailed code enacted by the City Council.
If the referendum is approved by the voters, the council will have to abide by the zoning code.
The council will still have the power to amend that code, because the code, appropriately, is not in the charter.
But those changes will have to be made very clearly, very publicly. And not late at night after endless hours of haggling negotiations with developers and their lawyers — which is the way zoning variances tend to be granted.
Yes, I know, the specter of citywide elections to approve variances is an ugly one.
But the people who are crying out with the greatest anguish at the clumsiness of this process have only themselves to blame. They’re the ones who pushed the system to the breaking point. They’re the ones who left the people’s will lying broken and bleeding by the side of the road while they chuckled and counted their profits.
Is this an ideal solution?
Again, hell no! We don’t have ideal solutions available at the moment.
But what’s the downside? Well … gee, I guess a few massive new projects won’t get built. Projects that for some reason just absolutely need to exceed the limits of the zoning code.
Can someone explain why that would be a bad thing? Bad for Aspen, I mean.
I don’t think you can.
And that’s why I remain firmly in support of Referendum 1.
Protecting lambs against lions since, well, 2015.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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