Stone: When your watchdog bites you in the butt
A Stone’s Throw
Coming home after a couple of months away, my first reaction was that nothing much has changed.
The mountains are still there, towering above us, majestically indifferent, serene and cruel.
“Come, play with us,” they call. “Maybe we’ll kill you.”
A grand “Welcome home!”
Meanwhile, down below, scurrying along at the mere human level, we have the same old problems: too much construction, too many cars, not enough housing. “First World problems” to be sure. We wrestle with success while most of the world struggles with failure. We choke on prosperity while others starve.
But “First World problems” though they may be, they are real enough — as anyone choking on the dust of construction or the fumes of a traffic jam can attest.
Still, there is something comforting about coming back to our own homegrown problems. Fights and fiascos with a sense of history, they are the mark of Aspen as a community, a community united by its feuds.
Often the problems remain the same over the years while the names change — like a nasty standing wave in a river, where the wave remains forever while the water keeps moving on.
Once we fought a vicious battle over the Ritz-Carlton at the base of Aspen Mountain. Now we are gearing up to fight over a Four Seasons at the base of Shadow Mountain. Nothing has changed but the names. And, as always, both sides will insist that the town will be saved if they win — and doomed if they lose.
It’s almost comic in a tragic kind of way.
But this time around, as I catch up on my local news, there is one version of the Name Game — same old problems, new names — that I find truly depressing: Where once we had Donald Trump and Mohamed Hadid in a bare-knuckle brawl over the choice morsel that became the Ritz (and not, thank God, a Trump Tumor), now we have the city of Aspen and the county of Pitkin fighting for the title of ruthless developer of the decade.
That is seriously depressing. Our local governments, the watchdogs we set to guard against out-of-control development, have become the development dreadnoughts themselves. Now super-sized! Armed with all the power we have given them.
The city, for its part, is pushing ahead with its dream (remember, a nightmare is still a dream) project: the new City Hall — perhaps the biggest, shiniest scar ever to be carved into the face of downtown Aspen.
It’s one heck of a big project, to be sure, but — son of a gun! — it looks like the city is going to give the city all the city approvals it needs to build City Hall.
What a surprise!
Meanwhile, the county — whose new building next to the courthouse cannot hope to match the sheer size of the city’s edifice complex — is making its mark by running roughshod over such insignificant matters as getting approval from local boards for its local development.
When city planners and boards rejected the county’s plans, the county, good citizen that it is, said, “Hmmm. No thanks. We reject your rejection. We’re going to build exactly what we want.” (Eat your heart out, Donald Trump!)
And we need to note that, while the county’s scar on the fair face of Aspen will not begin to equal the city’s downtown damage, the county is also pushing ahead with its own swollen goiter on the once-swanlike neck of the city: the new airport.
And the county is adding its own special twist (of the knife) with a series of ads promoting the airport — one in particular featuring a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, a fierce opponent of exactly the kind of outsized airport they’re getting ready to build.
Our airport officials are apparently as tone-deaf as Ronald Reagan, who played Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” at his rallies, apparently without ever actually listening to the words. I’m not surprised Reagan was clueless, but I am embarrassed that our oh-so-local officials are that ignorant. Or maybe that arrogant.
Anyway, as our governments do all this, they insist it is for our benefit.
They say they are doing it “to serve you better.”
Like any citizen of the modern world, I know that when I get a message that begins, “To serve you better, … ” I am not going to like whatever comes next. (I am reminded of the science-fiction story in which the residents of Earth discover, too late, that the book carried by their alien overlords, “To Serve Man,” is a cookbook.)
Cheap jokes aside, I said that I find all this depressing, and I do.
I am one of the rare people who actually believe that government can solve problems, but now I find myself allied with some of the people who fervently believe that government doesn’t solve problems — it is the problem.
Local government has changed radically over the decades. There was a time, back in the 1940s, when Aspen government was so lackadaisical that it didn’t bother holding elections for years — whoever was in office just stayed in office because it didn’t really matter. Then, in the ’50s and ’60s, there was an intensely pro-growth government in a town determined to rise from the “Quiet Years.”
Finally, in the 1970s, people realized the hellhole that Aspen and Pitkin County would become under pro-growth government.
And so new leaders were elected — an entire new generation of leaders — to create local government dedicated to controlling growth. They were the watchdogs at the gate, as I said way back at the beginning.
But as prices skyrocketed and development bucks got vastly bigger, government had to get vastly bigger, too.
And now bigger has become too big.
Too big has become too arrogant.
And too arrogant has become too much to bear.
So much for “Welcome home!”
Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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