Aspen City Council ponders how to address pushback from public
Aspen City Council members spent the better part of Tuesday at their annual retreat reviewing accomplishments and disappointments from the past year.
Highlights include building a new Castle Creek Bridge and Entrance to Aspen corridor, as well as raising the tobacco-purchasing age to 21.
The lowlights range from scathing public criticism over a proposed bike lane on Hopkins Avenue to ongoing litigation to stop a new 37,500-square-foot city office building at Rio Grande Place.
One by one, council members went around the room on the second floor of the new Aspen Police Department building, reflecting on how they did as elected leaders and collectively as a government.
The accomplishments outweighed the disappointments but the latter took up much of the discussion.
The conversation centered mostly on what went wrong this spring when the city was met with vitriol after officials introduced the idea of making Hopkins Avenue a one-way street to accommodate two-way bike lanes.
Council members debated whether the city did enough to let the public know that the change was coming.
Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she continues to get pushback on the abandoned bike lane plan, the city’s developing mobility lab and increased parking fees. All of those initiatives were designed to get people out of cars and into other modes of transit in order to reduce congestion.
“Somehow we failed to convey what we are trying to do with both of these,” Mullins said.
She added that council is privy to so much information and attempts to address the challenges in town before explaining to the public exactly what it’s doing.
“We go too quickly and we don’t bring the community with us,” Mullins said.
She cited the Castle Creek Bridge construction project as another example. Even though there was a lot of outreach on the $4.6 million project to improve the Entrance to Aspen corridor, residents still were taken by surprise.
Mayor Steve Skadron said at some point residents have to take responsibility for being informed. It’s even more problematic when there is a clash of values and a maturing community, he added.
“There’s only so much a city can do,” he said with frustration. “No amount of outreach is enough.”
Councilman Adam Frisch said the city could do a better job explaining its initiatives and anticipating pushback before it happens.
“I think we need to be proactive and ask ‘how can this go pear-shaped before it goes pear-shaped?’” he said.
Council members expressed their frustration on citizens suing the city and not recognizing the representative form of government that’s been set up for decades.
“Perhaps it’s the result of the tone and tenor in Washington, D.C., and that has filtered down to the local level,” Skadron said. “But we are seeing constant attacks on our system of local government.”
Regardless of the criticism it attracted, council members said they see the Castle Creek Bridge improvements as an accomplishment — just like the water rights the city government secured amid controversy around building dams in pristine wilderness area.
Ten parties challenged the city in water court after it applied to the state to extend existing conditional water rights for two potential reservoirs on Maroon and Castle creeks. The city first applied for those rights in 1965.
Since 2016, city officials have maintained that adequate water storage is needed in anticipation of climate-change impacts like drought, fire and changes in runoff.
City officials settled with the opposing entities and have identified other locations for water storage.
That issue and the others fell under the “outreach/timing” category as an important lesson in Tuesday’s discussion.
Councilman Ward Hauenstein said acting on the citizenry’s behalf is much like being a parent of a teenager.
“It’s that feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not right,” he said.
Other disappointments expressed by council members were not finding a solution to the lack of capital reserves in many homeowners associations at complexes within the affordable-housing program.
Councilman Bert Myrin said he’s disappointed the council did not find more environmentally friendly ways to equip the new police building, as well as effectively reduce traffic along the public school route and require developers to adequately pay for affordable housing.
As for accomplishments, Mullins cited the new wildlife ordinance that has fines attached to it for people who haze animals. She also is proud of the city securing conservation easements, completing a climate action plan, passing a landscape ordinance aimed at water conservation and moving forward with a new ski and development corridor at the base of Aspen Mountain’s west side.
“I think that is a huge community gain,” Hauenstein said of the Lift 1A plan.
Myrin is pleased that the city is moving forward with buying two properties across the street from City Hall as an alternative to municipal office space at Rio Grande Plaza.
Skadron noted that being the first city to offer free bike sharing also is a major accomplishment.
“I see it as a transformational change,” he said, adding that it leads to the larger goal of offering alternatives to driving into town.