Vagneur: Creating horrors upon our land |

Vagneur: Creating horrors upon our land

Capitol and Castle peaks stared me in the face, and the grand cape of snow that cascaded across them took a bit of my breath. The leaves, even at high altitude, were hanging on strong with a bright reflection of yellow, even on a cloudy day, and the thought crossed my mind, “The way nature intended it, a perfect, natural display.”

Clearly, we live in one of the most beautiful places on the face of the Earth, but somewhere deep down, a pox has attached itself to the guts of Pitkin County, an insidious, creeping delusion that seems to get worse each year. Not only is it the continual building of oversized houses by people who seldom use them, but like a cancer, those houses seem to sprout up more and more on previously untouched, open ranch-land. There seems to be an inability on the county’s part to stop the burgeoning usurpation of this precious, pristine land.

I know, I know — we’ve made a valiant attempt to limit house size to 5,750 square feet, but through this and that, a 15,000-square-foot house still isn’t out of the question. I guess if you truly need a house that big, more power to you, but really, maybe a house that size should be the one you live in year-round, not just the one you party in a few weeks out of the year.

Back around 1994, when the county began trying to crack down on house size, a local Realtor was quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, that limiting house size was akin to legislating morality, to which I can only say that if one chooses to desecrate open space with an oversized house, maybe a moral reckoning should be in order.

And as I watch as the humongous house up the hill gets built, my thoughts are all over the place. It’s not so much about the owners — once you sign on to the “Aspen dream house” scheme, you’re hooked into the system. You can rail about the architects, and they’re not without blame, nor are the speculators who build $20 million to $30 million homes and hope to hook a buyer before they’re even completed.

Having become somewhat inured to the whole monster-house scenario, I was willing to suck it up — until the landscapers hit town. Now I don’t mean to disrespect anyone of the “landscape architect” or “landscape designer” genre, because I don’t mean to imply that these people are charlatans, uneducated in their trade. The locals are excellent.

This particular group was from out of town — I get that — but if landscapers don’t first understand the natural environment in which they stand, how the hell are they supposed to implement a landscape design that is compatible with the surrounding environment?

Egregious errors abounded, but the first thing they did was instruct the local crew they’d hired to take down a couple of large, dead cottonwoods that were sort of impossible to miss as one looked at the majesty of the Elk Mountain range. Trouble is, one of the cottonwoods housed a bald eagle nest, a rather rare thing in the upper valley. The local crew refused to destroy the trees, and the out-of-town landscapers will forever be looked at askance. Around here, an eagle aerie reigns supreme.

Plans also include a large pond, referred to by the workforce as a lake, built on ground that has no natural live water within miles, in an area once called Poverty Flats due to lack of water. Filling and replenishing this large water feature will require liquid gold being ditched many miles, making a mockery of the irrigation systems built more than 125 years ago. But a big Aspen house like that can’t exist without a pond, eh?

Oh-so-carefully laid out, the stakes ever-so-deftly placed, and then, to my utter amazement, a small aspen tree here, one over there and a few between, planted firmly within an already existing, quite alluring aspen grove. This was done to correct any imperfections in nature’s exemplary and natural beauty, I suppose. These professional landscapers from a large city appear to be trying to re-create local nature in their own image, if you get my implication.

After careful thought, even though it’s they who want the big houses, I no longer think it’s entirely the owners who create these monsters — they are but pawns in a system that, once signed into, is almost impossible to navigate without creating horrors upon the land. In the process, planners, lawyers, architects, Planning and Zoning Commission members, landscape artists, county commissioners, consultants, builders, Realtors and imploring peers all extract their pound of flesh, and in the end, they all become just as complicit in the overall project as the owner, simply because that’s the way we do business. Natural or not, that’s sad.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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Those over 60 could use a jab

In reply to Daniel Kogan’s letter (“Making the vaccine case for lift operators,” Feb. 24, The Aspen Times), it would be great if we had enough vaccine to give to everybody. I feel the need!

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