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Aspen City Council votes to reinstate its pause on residential construction permits

City Council was much more careful about providing public notice for the consideration of the new moratorium.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
City Council was much more careful about providing public notice for the consideration of the new moratorium.

Aspen City Council has voted unanimously to reinstate a moratorium on new permits for residential development and construction.

Last week, a Pitkin County District Court Judge declared a previous moratorium unenforceable.

This second attempt at regulating development in Aspen represents a larger effort by the city to address what they deem to be an emergency: a lack of affordable housing and the impacts of a rapidly changing Aspen on climate change.

A Pitkin County district court judge wrote last week that the city violated Colorado’s open meetings law by not giving proper notice when enacting Ordinance 27.

Ordinance 27 is the first version of this current moratorium. It’s pretty similar to what council just approved: it declares an emergency in Aspen, and puts a pause on new permits for free-market, residential development and construction—set to last until June of this year.

That ordinance also included a pause on new permits for short-term or vacation rentals. The city further cemented its pause on short term rental permits in Ordinance 26, which was passed through a normal, non-emergency procedure in December.

So now, the city has approved Ordinance 6, to reinstate that pause on residential development. This time, it took pains to properly notice the ordinance—both online and posted on the door of city hall.

While the judge said there were procedural issues with how the council enacted the first moratorium, she said council was within its rights to determine what an emergency is and to declare one.

But many public commenters in Tuesday’s special meeting disagreed. One of the most common questions asked was, “what is the emergency?”

Bill Bowden, a builder in Aspen, was one such commenter.

"Feelings are not facts," he said. "Feelings are not facts! I have yet to see a fact as to why these building permits are a problem."

Gordon Ledingham, a banker in Aspen, said the issues council considers an emergency—affordable housing, namely—cannot be an emergency when it’s been a problem in the community for so many years.

"Housing in our town has been an issue for decades—a chronic situation. By definition, a chronic emergency is not an emergence," he argued.

But city officials disagree.

Mayor Torre says Aspen, as a community, is eroding. He says the path the city is on is not sustainable.

"This is hard work. This is not something that any of us want to be tackling, but we do feel it’s an emergency, whether it’s the fact that our landfill is filling up with tons and tons of construction debris, and we have five, six years left on it? No, we need to change some policies, and do it now."

Commenters also expressed concerns that people had lost work—millions of dollars of work. Lorrie Winnermann, an Aspen realtor, spoke about the folks she contracted with who had felt the effects of the pause.

"Why would you want to harm all these people who work in Aspen?" she asked. "My friends: the architects, the builders, the decorators, I could go on and on, the painters, the people who kill themselves to make a living here. You’ve really hurt them."

According to city officials, 75 percent of building permits that come in are approved. They also say there’s 800 million dollars worth of construction in the pipeline and 400 million dollars in real estate sales that have occurred since the original December moratorium.

Councilor Ward Hauenstein says he’s confident the wheels of Aspen’s economy have not come to a screeching halt as a result of the pause.

But economics, while important to the council and other city officials, are not the main concern. Councilor John Doyle spoke sharply about what he sees as an imbalance in the community he’s called home for forty years.

"I’d like to address the idea that this moratorium has divided the community," he said towards the end of the meeting. "From my point of view, the community has been divided for quite some time. It’s obvious a large part of our community makes a living treating our community as a commodity. And our community is out of balance."

Torre agreed. He says he wants to create a community where people want to live and work.

"The majority of community sentiment that I hear are people that want a community that is sustainable and is going to last for generations to come, he said. "And a constituency that isn’t worried about as someone just said tens of millions of dollars or a payoff now, versus long-term sustainability."

The city has three months left in the moratorium on residential development, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.

But they see that work as worth it, because they believe they’re working to preserve the soul of Aspen.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.