Stone: It’s the attack of the variance weasels |

Stone: It’s the attack of the variance weasels

Andy Stone
A Stone’s Throw

Wow! That was fast. It’s been barely two weeks since Election Day, and already it has begun. Like ugly mushrooms springing up in the aftermath of a rainstorm, the variance weasels have popped up out of their holes.

First off the mark: The owners of Hotel Aspen are asking the city to allow them to tack on an extra few feet to the height of their already-approved new hotel.

And — here’s the good part — since they are coming in with that request right after the people of Aspen have voted to ban the City Council from granting variances, the oh-so-clever developers and their oh-so-clever representatives are oh-so-cleverly explaining how, against all logic, this variance is not a variance.

It’s like watching a magician pull a weasel out of his top hat.

Shazam! Presto change-o!

Watch the will of the people disappear! Just like magic!

(OK, to be fair — sometimes I do feel the need to do that — the application for the extra height may have been filed before the election. But the developers are still claiming that no variances will be required. Maybe they just want to pretend they have consciences.)

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to remember that the Hotel Aspen project was, in fact, one of the triggers for the citizens’ petition drive that led to the vote that banned council-approved variances.

The hotel was granted its approval just a few months ago, after a long, ugly series of negotiations between the owners/developers and the City Council.

The council managed to get the developers to reduce the height and bulk of their project by lopping off a few feet in height and dropping one of the four planned free-market (aka super-expensive) condominiums.

In the end, when the council threw up its collective hands in fatigue, the project was still kind of big and kind of ugly. And the three approved condos were still more than a little out of place in the Bleeker Street residential neighborhood behind the hotel.

And then — just so you remember — the council, in the run-up to the election (which was held, if I may repeat myself, barely two weeks ago), tried to claim that no variances were approved for this project.

That council claim was generally rejected by assorted land-use lawyers who cited various specific variances that were, in fact, granted. And, even for us non-lawyers, it did fly in the face of the fact that the council had battled the developers for weeks over limiting the height and bulk of the project — a battle that would not have been necessary if it were not for the requested, you know, variances.

Finally, in order to persuade one councilman to change his mind, the developers agreed to lower the height of the condominiums.

And, in exchange for cutting the height, they got the one additional vote they needed for a project that the neighborhood hated, a project that was several thousand square feet bigger than the zoning code allowed.

And now they’re back, asking to increase the height of the condos to 32 feet.

And, just for fun, the developers are claiming it’s really the city’s fault that they need the extra height.

You see, as part of the negotiations to get council approval, the developers dropped one of the four free-market condo units they wanted — but now they realize (golly, somehow we just overlooked it before) that without that fourth condo, they just can’t afford the super-expensive building techniques that would have allowed them to limit the condos’ height.

So it’s the city’s fault that they can’t afford to keep their promises.

Shazam! With a wave of my magic wand!

Pull a weasel out of my hat? Ha! Watch closely as I pull an elephant out of my … um, well, you know where that elephant is pulled out of.

No, wait.

I said it was magic, but really, it’s more like three-card monte, the cheap sidewalk hustler’s con game where the poor stooge thinks he knows which of the three cards is obviously the one to pick — except that the hustlers are smarter and faster and the stooge is always wrong.

Makes you wonder how the council feels now about granting that approval in exchange for a promise to lower the height of the building.

Gee, we were sure they would honor their promises. Who could have guessed they would change their minds?

And that it would all be our fault?

It makes me think of the bleating of those who claim that the rush to submit development applications to beat the deadlines on proposed limits on development is always really the city’s fault.

According to these hired apologists for unrestrained development, any attempt to “slow down” development just speeds it up. You get a decade’s worth of development in a month, they argue.

But, in fact, the limits on variances approved in this past election (and the height limitations approved three years ago, which also led to a deadline-beating rush of applications) were not intended to “slow down” development.

They were intended to flat-out stop certain kinds of destructive development.

And without those limits, the “decade” of growth that was triggered would have been followed by another decade of unrestrained growth. And another one after that.

Attempts to limit development are not to blame for greed gone wild.

You know, I wish those people would stop designing and building that wildly inappropriate crap.

But if they won’t stop (and we all know they won’t), can’t they at least shut up?

It’s bad enough we have to live with what they have done to Aspen without having to listen to them explain why it wasn’t their fault.

It was all the fault of the very people who tried to keep them under control.

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