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The voices we’re hearing — and missing — in response to Aspen’s new STR and development regulations

west end construction house
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
This house, under construction in Aspen’s West End, is just one example of construction projects that the City Council fears is becoming a disruption to neighbors.

Most people know Aspen as a ski town — and it certainly is. But it is also fair to say that Aspen is a real estate and construction town.

“The development and short-term rental industries are the largest sector of our economy,” said Phillip Supino, the city's community development director.

According to the Aspen Board of Realtors, more than 800 active real estate brokers work between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

It’s the pace and scale of these industries that led Aspen’s City Council to put a moratorium on new permits for residential development and vacation rentals in December.

Now, after seven months of meetings and public outreach, Aspen has a new set of rules for short-term rentals, or STRs, and residential development.

City Council members hope these new rules will address some of the concerns that pushed them to put a pause on issuing development and STR permits back in December.

In addition to the pace and scale of both the vacation rental and development industries, the city also cited climate impacts as a key reason for the pause.

Approved over two meetings, on June 28 and June 30, the new regulations include a permitting and fee structure for STRs, occupancy limits on those units, and capping their number in residential zones.

The city is also limiting the number of demolitions that take place in Aspen to six per year.

But not everyone is on board with the new rules.

As Supino said, a lot of people in Aspen rely on lodging, construction and real estate sales to make a living — and they’ve been making their voices heard throughout the rulemaking process.

When the city began crafting the rules to regulate STRs, development and construction, those affected parties came out in force to provide feedback.

For example, Tracy Sutton with Aspen Signature Properties was one of the dozens of real estate brokers that came to an open house in April. Many were decked out in hats and quarter-zips bearing the logos of their real estate companies.

She operates STRs but is sympathetic to people with concerns about neighborhood impacts.

“I share some of the concerns that they have: parking, noise, trash, bears,” Sutton said. “But I think if you have an educated community and you educate your guests that are coming to visit, I think most people will be respectful.”

Ultimately, Sutton thinks the city’s new rules are too strict, but she thinks that some regulation is a good thing. She says rules can be adjusted over time.

“You know, you start something and you’re going to say, 'Oh, this doesn’t work, we may have to tweak this neighborhood,'” she said. "So I look at it as evolving, and I think we need to get in and get the ground rules started, and let it evolve on its own.”

This sentiment was echoed by City Council member Ward Hauenstein, who happens to be Sutton’s neighbor.

“I feel we have to start somewhere for something we’ve identified as something that’s out of control, and in order to preserve the fabric of our community, I think it’s important that we take a first step, and it may not be the last, but I feel comfortable that we have something to work on here,” Hauenstein said at the June 28 meeting, when the City Council voted to approve the ordinance outlining rules for vacation rentals.

It’s a bell that Hauenstein and others have rung repeatedly — that these regulations are needed to preserve the fabric of Aspen as a community.

During the six-hour meeting, the City Council engaged in good faith with the people who came to provide comments, responding to questions and asking some of their own.

Some of the people who spoke at the meeting have been regular players during the city’s rulemaking process — including Bill Guth, a Realtor in town, who spoke out during the public-comment period of the meeting.

“This is going to be another well-intentioned mess,” Guth said. ”There are so many unintended consequences. I’m advocating for a lot of people in my industry’s behalf here, but it needs to be considered. This is not going to be without pain for a lot of our community.”

Guth has been sharply critical of the council from the inception of the moratorium. In March, he and luxury spec-home builder Bob Bowden circulated a petition in town to persuade the City Council to repeal the moratorium. Guth is also Mayor Torre’s neighbor in the East End.

Alexandra George, chair of the Aspen Board of Realtors, is another regular at the city’s meetings and open houses. During the June 28 public hearing, she said the council's consistent unanimous votes don’t reflect the diverse perspectives that she has heard at all of the meetings leading up to the vote.

“I’ve been told at each of those that it’s getting brought up the ladder, and I’m not sure that that’s the case, because it seems consistently (that) it’s a five out of five,” she said.

She said she even debated whether to speak at the public hearing, because she felt her voice wasn’t being heard.

As vocal as the real estate industry has been in providing feedback, there is another large chunk of people whose voices have been noticeably absent — and that’s important to note.

Supino says residents who support regulations on STRs and residential development were “silenced.”

“There are people who said to staff explicitly, in person or otherwise, that they were unwilling or uncomfortable to go on the record about the topic because of the contentiousness of the topics in the community,” he said.

Supino also noted there were enough people who expressed that sentiment that he felt the council needed to know about it.

He says there are a few possible reasons for that. One could be just the sheer size and wealth of the real estate and development industry, and that folks don’t want to look like they’re killing Aspen’s “golden goose.”

Another reason could be the personal connections.

“There are also people who, their friends and neighbors, family members, may be involved in the industry and they don’t want to say anything that can be perceived as undermining their friends' and neighbors’ economic or personal interests,” he said.

Phyllis Bronson is an exception.

“I would be all for regulating hard the STRs in the residential zone, so I don’t have to listen to two different couples fighting in one week in a different unit near where I live, and I don’t want to live that way," Bronson said during a meeting in April. “And this council for the first time in years, we’ve seen some real activism. We’re very proud of you. We hope you will zone it like you mean it.”

Bronson, a longtime Aspen resident, feels a boom in vacation-term rentals is taking away from long-term rental units for locals.

“There is something to being a local here, and if you’re not one, you don’t know what that is,” she said. “But if you are one, you do know it. It’s an intrinsic thing. And my friends, my peers are feeling this innate sadness that it’s going. And you don’t just write a check and become a local.”

It’s a stark reminder that for all the wealth in Aspen, and the billions of dollars that that make up its economy and real estate market, it’s still a small town.

Many in attendance at the June 28 meeting were reminded of that in the following exchange between neighbors Ward Hauenstein, a member of the City Council, and Tracy Sutton, a Realtor.

“Tracy, can I ask you a question? It’s Ward, … your neighbor Ward,” Hauenstein said after Sutton offered public comment.

“Hi, Ward! I haven’t egged your house yet,” Sutton said.

“I like the ‘yet.’ It’s the ‘yet’ that I like. That’s nice,” City Council member Skippy Mesirow said.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering local news and City of Aspen-based issues. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.