Tony Vagneur: Equality is Aspen? That has become a relative term. |

Tony Vagneur: Equality is Aspen? That has become a relative term.

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

We sat at the old wooden 1880s bar, just the two of us, sipping our drinks in an early afternoon lull. “You know, I sold my house,” he said slowly, his eyes looking up to the windows high above the bar. “I didn’t want to, but you know, at that money, it seemed like the only smart thing to do.”

It was an apology of sorts, this much-older man talking to a very young man who, with idealism pumping in his veins, had proposed to a group of older, wealthier men, who had been complaining about “old-timers” selling out, enticed by increasingly high prices, that we organize a corporation, fund a beginning endowment, and keep those properties in Aspen ownership. This was in the late 60s, early 70s. As you might well imagine, it never got off the ground and even if it had, we would likely have never been able to keep up.

We didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the tarnishing of the marquee “Aspen Idea” (Mind, Body, Spirit), as we know it today and as touted by eggheads at the Aspen Institute for a very long time. In honor of Walter Paepcke, an important man in Aspen’s history and founder of the Aspen Institute, allow me to quote 16th century preacher Robert Bolton: “A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.”

As high school kids, we traveled to the Institute occasionally, listening to various lectures, and I don’t think we were ever apprised of the Aspen Idea. Actually, the mind, body and spirit mantra didn’t seem to have much public traction until maybe the 1980s, certainly the 1990s, by which time its basic and positive meaning was wilting behind a gossamer screen of development and growth.

My naivete was fomented by watching the Aspen and Pitkin County I grew up in slowly disappear and hoping there was some way to hang onto important remnants of the past. Unaware of the Aspen Historical Society and Aspen Valley Land Trust at the time, my thought was an exercise in futility, but representative of a forming distrust of outsiders.

Maybe “mind, body and spirit” wasn’t getting a lot of press because we were becoming engrossed in “buy, sub-divide, and excavate.” Undeveloped land was a teaser for those with development-based attitudes; what a waste of land, they said, and the new real estate refrain became “the highest and best use of the land,” which just coincidentally usually meant development of some kind.

We were creating a new model, a way to save Aspen and a method to keep a part of the “West” and “old Aspen” that we love, alive. I’m not sure anyone thought of our actions way back then in such high-toned rhetoric, but there was an undertone that was difficult to ignore. At the same time we were trying to save irreplaceable history, financing, as always, became an important piece of the puzzle; we needed to be sure we could keep Aspen fungible with the outside world.

Unwittingly, perhaps on purpose, we created a symbiotic relationship; peace and tranquility of quiet, open spaces on the one hand; dependent on the beast of tourism — boisterous, moneyed and sophisticated on the other. Both of these attracted folks with money, which has allowed us to massage both a unique town and attractive countryside near a winding road.

People spending money here, buying real estate, and doing whatever, has meant those very same people are convinced to contribute charitably or through taxation to those causes important to keeping the lid on development, at least partially. But, to keep it all going, we have to continue feeding the beast in our midst — tourism.

In 1967, Aspen Valley Land Trust came into being, a savior for much wide-open space; 1990 saw the creation of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program. Working individually or sometimes in concert, these two entities have preserved almost 70,000 acres of open land. Pitkin County still needs to take up the slack, by increasing minimum lot size of undeveloped land to 160 acres; maximum house size to something less than 7,500 square feet. Letting people buy their way around caps on size with TDRs is an idea whose time has expired.

This model is ever-changing and where it ends, we can’t say, but one of the unintended consequences has been increased class division, a demarcation between those who have and those who must work to stay alive. The wealthy can afford high-priced real estate; less well-heeled folks pursue so-called “affordable” housing in Aspen or downvalley, tearing off a well-earned piece of the dream for themselves.

People ask, “What happened to the days when everyone in Aspen was equal?” That’s where those days went — equality has become a relative term.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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