Stone: Experiment in democracy: Let’s knock over the apple cart

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

So I get back to town last week after a couple of months on the road (great trip, thanks for asking), and I discover Aspen slipping into a new frenzy of participatory democracy.

No, make that “real democracy,” which is a rare thing.

As we all learned in high school, neither the United States nor any other modern “democracy” is a true democracy.

In a true democracy (or, to be more technical, a direct democracy), all the voters get together to vote on every significant issue. There is no city council, no county commission or house of representatives. Instead, there’s just a raw mob of citizens who, for better or worse, take things into their own hands — and those hands are raised high to vote yea or nay on pretty much everything: rules and regulations and whether to buy a new snowplow and what color the police cars should be and whether to go to war with Russia or France — or Basalt.

As nations — or even just as states or counties — we outgrew that kind of democracy in size and complexity long ago.

There are obvious drawbacks to that approach to government, especially when it comes to running a country of 300 million. First of all, where are you going to get a big enough room for everyone to get together? And who’s going to count all those raised hands? (“127,365,237 — 127,365,238 — 127,365 — oops! Sorry. Need to start over.”)

Which is why everyone who’s interested in democracy has settled on some form of representative democracy, in which we elect representatives who then ignore our desires and their campaign promises and go ahead and do whatever the hell they want based on half-baked ideas, random whims or the wishes of big-money donors.

Our local politics are, I do believe, blessedly free of the most venal sort of corruption. But we do run into some pretty grim conflicts of interest and, maybe even worse, simple cowardice and confusion and screw-loose thinking (or lack thereof — that’s lack of thinking, not lack of loose screws).

Over the years, we have seen Aspen’s best and brightest, truly intelligent, honest, public-spirited, well-meaning residents make some of the most horrendous decisions possible — sent astray by who knows what personal demons and blind spots. We’ve been led into blind alleys and off cliffs by people we trusted.

As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mistakes were made.”

Oh, boy, were they ever.

I’m not going to name names or point fingers because it’s been going on for a long time and there’s plenty of blame to go around.

But now we have local activist Bert Myrin — who helped lead a residents’ uprising that scuttled the truly terrible “lodge incentive ordinance” last year — proposing an amendment to the city charter requiring voter approval of zoning variances.

That means if a developer wants to build bigger or taller (fatter? uglier?) than the zoning allows or wants to provide less parking or affordable housing than required, the City Council could not grant the request. Voter approval would be required.

Not surprisingly, even the good guys on the council are opposed.

I can’t blame them.

I also can’t agree with them.

I can’t blame them for opposing the idea because it is a direct slap in the face. It isn’t a “warning shot across the bow”; it’s a kill shot direct amidships.

It is, to some extent, a reaction to a recent spate of vile buildings — most of which, to be clear, could not have been prevented by this voter-approval requirement. That’s because they didn’t require variances. They conformed to the zoning, which was the result of a wildly bad City Council decision years ago to allow bigger, taller buildings in the downtown core.

In fact — timeout! — that wretched bigger-building idea, known by the innocuous bureaucratic term “infill,” points to a possible Achilles’ heel of this entire plan: The City Council cannot grant zoning variances without voter approval, but it can amend the zoning code itself.

“We can’t give you a variance to allow a fourth story on your hotel — but give us a month, and we’ll rezone downtown to allow 10-story buildings. No problem.”

But regardless of any kind of heel — Achilles’ or otherwise — this voter-approval proposal is appealing.

To begin with, we have seen the City Council get bogged down in negotiations with developers who have endless patience, coupled with more money and better lawyers than the city.

The council means well, but too often it gets bullied, outwaited and outwitted.

This new measure should put an end to that.

But even more to the point, this might stick a much-needed pin in Aspen’s downtown real estate bubble.

As others have pointed out, these days, property owners demand and developers pay real estate prices that are not justified by any potential development allowed by current zoning.

Those sky-high prices seem based on an assumption that the developer will, of course, be able to get a handful of variances to allow more development with less parking and less housing.

We’ve all heard developers come to the council crying, “We can’t make the numbers work” without this or that (or this and that) concession.

The answer should be simple: That’s your problem. You paid too much.

Instead, being good guys, the council begins negotiating to help the developer find a way out of the hole he has cynically dug for himself.

And so buildings get bigger and real estate prices get higher and local businesses are forced out by ever-escalating rents — and we all wonder whatever happened to our fabled “messy vitality.”

Are the people trustworthy? Should we hand those decisions over to the mob? (And I mean “mob” in the best sense of the word.) Maybe not. The politicians certainly don’t seem to think so.

But the mob could hardly make more of a mess than we’ve already got.

I say it’s time to knock over the apple cart and see what happens.

Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is