Aspen voters limit city’s sweetheart deals with developers


In early May, Aspen voters moved to limit the power of the City Council to give sweetheart deals to developers, joining such towns as Telluride, Littleton and San Francisco who have put similar measures in place.

Now any time Aspen’s Council decides to grant special deals – excusing developers from protecting scenic views, requiring affordable housing or other such requirements –  those deals must go to a public vote.

Such initiatives have been growing more common nationwide, according to Jason Jordan, director of government affairs for the American Planning Association. “They are not cookie cutter…but the notion that there is going to be some part of the development and planning process that goes to voters in a politicized way is becoming more common.”

Aspen’s measure, known as Referendum 1, says that if the City Council grants a variance to developers seeking approval, then that project must go before a popular vote. 53 percent of voters, or 1,300, voted for the measure, while 1,145 opposed it.

Champions of the referendum portrayed it as a way to balance a system skewed toward developers. Their slogan was “Keep Aspen Aspen.”

“The wealthy developer goes out and gets a dream team of consultants who are paid to attend city meetings,” says Marcella Larsen, a local land-use attorney and writer. “For citizens, the only real opportunity is a three minute public comment. And their work schedules often don’t allow them to attend the meetings.”

Opponents said that it is the job of the Council, elected by the voters, to make decisions about development. If voters are unhappy with Council decisions, they can vote their councilmembers out of office.

Littleton voters in March approved a measure that requires their OK before the city can offer developers special deals to lure them to town. Last December, the Telluride City Council agreed to relinquish its power to give waivers to developers in meeting certain zoning requirements, after citizens mounted a petition to put the issue to a vote. And in June 2014, San Francisco voters approved a measure that says that any development project from Fisherman’s Wharf to Hunters Point shipyard will require their approval if it exceeds existing height limits.

Back in Aspen, the city attorney is seeking a legal opinion about whether the new rules apply retroactively, to development applications made before the May election. One proposed development, known as Base2, along with a companion hotel that already has approval, Base1, would bring 80 new hotel rooms to Aspen. Supporters of referendum 1 are arguing that Base2 should now go to a popular vote.

So it all begins.

Photo credit: Andrew Rivett, Creative Commons, Flickr.

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