Tony Vagneur: Bigger isn’t always better for houses; it’s time to downsize |

Tony Vagneur: Bigger isn’t always better for houses; it’s time to downsize

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

If you’ve had your ear to the ground lately, you’ve probably noticed that the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is entertaining the idea of lowering the maximum house size in the county. Hard to imagine getting by on less leg room, but with a little luck, it might happen.

If you’ve ever wandered through one of those big, bad boys, it’s reminiscent of wandering through an over-sized mausoleum or an outdated, empty hotel. Aloneness is a word that comes to mind, especially when they’re unoccupied so often. It’s hard to make a 15,000-square-foot house ring true to the meaning of “house,” no matter what kind of art you hang on the walls. For reference, the Pitkin County Courthouse is roughly 15,000 square feet.

Even so, the maximum allowable house size in Pitkin County is actually 5,750 square feet, but like everything else we do around here, we’ve come up with a mind-bending plan that allows the wealthy to get what they want (like a 15,000-square-foot house) by using something called Transferable Development Rights (TDRs).

Basically, rural and remote properties were downzoned to 1,000 square feet being the maximum allowable house size. In return, and generally speaking, for every 35 acres of the downzoned land, TDRs were created which could be used to add 2,500 square feet to the maximum house size of 5,750, up to 15,000. Each rural parcel was evaluated on its own merits.

At this point in time, we could talk TDRs all day and still not be in agreement, but we can’t change everything all at once. There have been some monstrosities created using TDRs, and many of them aren’t even that big — some around 10,000 to 13,000 square feet.

What we seldom think of: Large house size is, without a doubt, an abuse of open, virgin land. The kind of land that shows greenness and uncluttered openness has developers peeing down one leg while scribbling plans through dollar bill signs on the back of napkins.

Many people with gobs of money don’t see much other than their huge house plopped down on that pristine chunk of ground, along with the requisite pond, pool, horse barn, asphalt driveways and maybe a large water feature, something like an amusement park stream that comes from nowhere and disappears into the same place. Freddie Fisher had a water spigot like that in the display window of his Main Street shop years ago.

There aren’t that many large pieces of undeveloped land left in the county. Open Space and Trails and Aspen Valley Land Trust do their best to limit the destruction of this land, but there’s a limit to their omnipotence. Conservation easements help. And isn’t the value of open land diminished when right next door sits an oversized, ugly 10,000-, 13,000-, or 15,000-square-foot house?

A majority of people who build large houses (and attendant accoutrement) don’t seem to have an appreciation for the land itself, other than the range of motion it gives them to build their ticky-tacky edifices. They build electric or game fences around their yards to keep the elk and bears out, use agricultural water rights to irrigate their lawns and fill their ponds, and surely must shiver with a bit of fear when having to go outside in the dark.

If a small hill or hummock (or aspen grove) is in the viewplane, take it out. This happens more than you’d think, although some do get caught. A case in East Sopris Creek a few years ago resulted in a $20,000 fine. Peanuts compared with the overall cost of development.

The BOCC could do two things that would help stem the desecration of open land in the county. First, do as they’re thinking, definitively limit house size to the already established 5,750 square feet. OK, OK, I know, we need to compromise, so make it 7,500 with the use of two TDRs, but absolutely no larger.

That keeps TDRs in the game, saves energy, and still allows houses of huge size. I mean, how many bedrooms can you make love in at once or how many toilets can you avail yourself of at one time? (We can only dream of 3,500-square-feet maximum house size.)

The other thing, maybe even more important, is to require 160-acre minimum lot sizes. This would limit the piecemeal, cookie-cutter partitioning off of large tracts of land, something we’re so good at and a practice which is devastating to wildlife. This would hopefully allow us to keep some breathing room for our children. And don’t forget, open land soaks up carbon.

Pitkin County does not owe builders and developers a high-dollar platform upon which they can stay busy, nor does it owe anyone, no matter the thickness of their wallet, outrageous development allowances. We need to downsize.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at