Britta Gustafson: Think big, stay small

Development should not come at cost of rural character

Britta Gustafson
Then Again
Snowmass Village as seen from Brush Creek Road in January 2019.
File photo/The Snowmass Sun

“The best view comes from the hardest climb.”

In the midst of change, these grand vistas hold fast: Mount Daly, shrouded in mist on a bluebird day or backlit by an intense gradient of hot pink and burgundy hues, the early morning blue-gray shadows sculpting the landscape across a crystalline carpet of fresh white snow, and the unparalleled panorama of peaks that swaddle our valley.

So many of us live for that beauty. But even while nestled into this majestic landscape, we often find ourselves lost in a humanscape of our own contrived physical environment, enveloped by the impending structures surrounding us.

Focus turns to the build-out of man-made creations, to lit-up mega homes and traffic circles and of a towering effigy to indulgence and privilege. Over-development marches on, a new excess in which we can’t seem to avoid indulging despite our awareness of its addictive draw and more pressing realities staring us down.

Have we lost sight of the litmus test evoked by decades of emphasis on “Just Big Enough”?

Here in Snowmass Village, over-development is — and has been — our greatest threat. Even as we look to the future with a desire to mature and evolve in concert with our economic and cultural needs, we must consider the sprawling movement that continues.

It is structured to enrich the few who can afford to escape it: As long as city dwellers and elite inner-ring suburbanites continue to migrate here in search of an escape to their bucolic home in the woods, bringing with them their ideas to enhance and manipulate our valley, they put in jeopardy the environment and character that brought them here in the first place.

Unfortunately, even those of us who have called this place home for decades often equate development with progress. But that wasn’t always the case.

In 1964, as original Snowmass developers Ed and Bills Janss honed their vision, the brothers saught balance, too. In an effort to seek that balance, Ed Janss reached out to Sam Francis, a contemporary and quite famous pop artist of the day, inviting him to come to Snowmass and give his thoughts on how the company should proceed.

After spending a month in the rural mountains and amid the ranching culture of the valley that we now call Snowmass Village, he sent Ed a very substantial bill for his time a one-sentence recommendation: Do “as little as possible.”

The advice was “priceless,” Ed later acknowledged, and it influenced the first attempt at a version of a comprehensive plan, the 1966 Janss Master Plan. It was simple, and I feel it was a model upon which all iterations should continue to reference. Here it is in its entirety:

  • Nature should be the dominant feature on the landscape.
  • The rural character of the Brush Creek Valley should be preserved.
  • Villages should be small, distinct and quaint.
  • A regional transit system should minimize car traffic and link to Aspen, which would remain “the dominant center” for business and commerce.

Following these very simple guidelines, the original planners and architects set up strict guidelines in an effort to minimize sprawl and keep our structures from overwhelming the landscape. The simple designs were intentionally straight-lined and of modest height and density, clustered together where no one building would dominate. They blended harmoniously, becoming one visual unit of human habitat that also accentuated the natural rugged curves of the mountainside landscape.

Today, we have a more complex, less environmentally egalitarian perspective in this era of development. But after reading through 80 pages of open public comments in response to the 2019 Community Survey, it became clear to me that, on the whole, we still value a minimal approach to development.

Respondents emphasized how much we love this place for its immediate natural access; we don’t want to take unnecessary risks that could end up spoiling the character.

Our passion behind the phrase “Just Big Enough,” if lost or buried in nomenclature, will have irreparable implications on the way of life for those of us who visit or call this place home, and for future generations who deserve a stake in this story.

To our Town Council, mayor and community leaders, I urge you to please move forward slowly and consciously, eyeing our roots by referencing “as little as possible” as we expand. My wish for Snowmass Village is that we remain aggressively aware of our priceless natural connections and the scale and character of our human impact on this valley.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at