Variances, Affordable Housing and Referendum 1


(The new Aspen “Art Monstroseum.”)

Aspen City Council’s regulation of development has failed.

It’s not that the city has no development standards on the books. Instead, it’s that the City Council grants too many variances to those standards. So, the people have put a referendum on the ballot to limit the council’s authority to grant further variances.

How did it come to this? Why did the City Council grant so many variances to the city’s standards that the city’s people no longer trust them to do the right thing for the city?

One reason is the affordable-housing program.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not affordable-housing units per se that are ugly, and certainly not the people who live in them. Rather, it’s the variances that the City Council gives developers in exchange for them.

Here’s how the game is played: Developers often apply for variances in height standards or building volume. In a well-run city, the few variances that are aesthetically justified are granted and the many that are unjustified are denied.

But that’s not how it works in Aspen. Here, developers buy variances by simply feeding the council’s insatiable appetite for affordable housing. Take an ugly project, toss in some affordable housing magic dust and — voila! — the frog is transformed into a prince, at least in the eyes of City Council.

Developers grumble about this pay-to-play system (but not too loudly, because they can’t risk offending or embarrassing those whose approval they need) but console themselves with the knowledge that they will pass the expense onto consumers. Meanwhile, City Council congratulates itself on squeezing some dough out of the developer to send to the recipients of affordable housing.

Those recipients include the council members themselves. Continue reading