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Future of historic preservation in Aspen up for grabs

Carolyn Sackariason
csack@aspentimes.com
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times fileBill Stirling mayor of Aspen when the city's historic preservation program began, chaired the Historic Preservation Task Force. He supports recommendations the group will make to the City Council.
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ASPEN, Colorado – A citizen committee will recommend to the Aspen City Council that properties built in the first few decades following World War II be historically designated without property owners’ consent.

However, the recommendation hardly represents a strong majority on the Historic Preservation Task Force, which voted in August on involuntary designation. Nine members of the 21-member committee don’t agree that government regulation should be forced upon property owners of buildings built 30 years ago or before. They plan to submit a dissenting opinion to council.

The involuntary-versus-voluntary vote was one of 34 recommendations that will be made to the council. Most recommendations don’t represent a strong majority.

“The votes show the fundamental, philosophical divide,” said Yasmine dePagter, a task force member and one of the nine people who produced a separate report which recommends a proactive voluntary program.

“The split was practically down the middle,” she said. “There were no wall flowers. Everyone had an opinion.”

Bill Stirling, chair of the task force, was Aspen mayor when the city’s historic preservation program was first instituted some 30 years ago. He said the preservation of 19th and early 20th century buildings, numbering about 300, was possible because of involuntary designation.

“That program would have never succeeded,” he said.

Stirling is one of 10 task force members who supports involuntary designation and the 34 recommendations that will be presented to the council next week. Those policy recommendations aim to make historical designation more smooth for property owners and less treacherous and onerous, Stirling said.

The task force’s clear divide is fairly representative of the community, which has been debating the merits of a revamped historic preservation program for at least two years.

“I never thought that there would be consensus, but I thought people would compromise,” Stirling said. “It’s demonstrative and indicative of this issue.”

The fact that there is no strong majority or clear mandate from the task force might partly be because an equal number of ardent property rights supporters and historic preservationists were appointed by the council.

dePagter said her group wrote the dissenting opinion when it became apparent that two different schools of thought were emerging from the task force – preservation versus property rights.

Where it all began

The task force was formed 18 months ago in response to controversial legislation, Ordinance 48, passed by the council in late 2007. It was meant to be a temporary fix to Ordinance 30, which prevented the demolition or alteration of any building more than 30 years old without a governmental review to determine its historic significance.

The task force as a whole couldn’t reach a consensus on what to do about Ordinance 48, which currently allows a property owner who has been identified by the city as having a potentially historic building to either agree or volunteer for historic designation, or pass on it and accept a 90-day delay period to process the permit to alter or demolish the building.

dePagter’s group recommends that “the cloud be lifted over” property owners who fall under government review.

“Two years have passed, and they deserve to be released,” the report states. “Twelve of the 53 properties have applied for either demo/remodel permits or are negotiating designation … All properties on the Ordinance 48 list should receive a 10-year vesting right to alter their property without concern for evolving mandatory preservation policies.”

As part of their voluntary designation proposal, dePagter’s group suggests that if the city government believes a property should be historically designated, it ought to use its condemnation powers to buy the building, designate it and then resell it with whatever restrictive covenants are appropriate to preserve its notable qualities.

Even though there are plenty of varying opinions, the task force spent a great deal of time developing criteria that would determine whether a property is worthy of designation. Those threshold issues will be presented to the council and discussed on Oct. 26.

While they didn’t agree on a lot, the majority of task force members did agree on some recommendations.

The task force voted 15-5 that the city of Aspen should first historically landmark or designate government-owned properties identified as eligible by the proposed criteria.

Giving property owners economic incentives as part of the historical designation process passed by a vote of 15-3, with two abstentions. Incentives include waiving development fees, issuing transferable development rights and offering property tax abatements. Other suggestions included having the city fund property taxes imposed by other local governments, and giving complimentary passes to the recreation center, the golf course and the Wheeler Opera House.

“Anything which could be used to encourage a resident owner to continue to live in his or her designated property and not develop it should be considered,” according to the task force’s upcoming report, which is still in draft form.

The task force couldn’t reach a strong majority on whether historic designation is financially detrimental to property owners. Nine members believe it’s not while the same number of people say it is.

dePagter’s group refers to the assessment made by Randy Gould, an appraiser at the Aspen Appraisal Group, Ltd.

“In short, the incentives are everything,” Gould wrote in an Aug. 4 memo. “However, to be clear, historic designation, in and of itself, is unquestionably a negative impact on value.”

Stirling in the past has argued otherwise. He was part of creating the city’s original historic preservation program three decades ago – when it primarily focused on Victorians – and as a real estate agent, he has publicly stated that values have increased on some designated properties.

Another issue that dominated discussions among task force members was whether the heightened pursuit to devise a new historic preservation program was driven by the mass and scale of new buildings replacing old ones.

dePagter believes it is and that those issues should be addressed in the city’s land-use code, “not under the guise of historic preservation,” she said. “People are more concerned about what will go in the place of something than they are about the original building.”

dePagter’s group – which includes task force members Michael Behrendt, Penny Evans Carruth, Marsha Cook, Pam Cunningham, John Kelly, Mike Maple, Tom Todd and Jack Wilke – argues that there is no real will by residents to designate 30-year-old or older buildings.

“The community does not have the same level of support for preservation of these properties as mining-era properties [or] Victorians,” the group’s report states. “Just because a building is cute or has a seemingly appropriate size to its neighborhood does not make it a historic resource.”

Stirling said the task force is suggesting that only the “best” post-World War II properties be considered for designation. Not all architectural styles produced in the 1960s and ’70s are recommended in the task force’s report, and the ones suggested for designation are narrowly defined as “classic log” or “chalet” structures, for example.

dePagter said throughout the task force’s 18 months of work, not one member of the public or the citizen committee vehemently argued for any particular building to be designated or saved.

The rest of the task force believes that preservation of some post-World War II buildings are key to Aspen’s character.

“The task force finds that the people, trends and events after WW II have significantly influenced the development of the Aspen we know today,” the final report states. “These chapters are an important part of our community’s story, and they are worthy of conveying to Aspen’s residents and visitors now and in the future.”

Task force members who supported the final report last week include Stirling, Les Holst, Su Lum, Junee Kirk, Lisa Markalunas, Ann Mullins, Joe Myers, Suzannah Reid, Gilbert Sanchez and Tom Todd.

Whatever recommendations or policies are eventually adopted by council will likely be selected from a wide range of the task force’s varying ideologies.

“Our job was to mitigate this stuff for council, and every single person did their best and put their best foot forward,” dePagter said. “Council will have to cherry pick through it.”

Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation officer, said the task force’s work isn’t in vain.

“There are more ideas now than before on this issue,” she said.

Stirling said some of the best ideas were put forward by staunch property rights supporters. Yet, he admitted that they weren’t always backed by the majority.

“No one point of view prevailed on the task force,” Stirling said.

dePagter said it’s unfortunate that the historic preservation issue has divided the community the way it has, as well as on the task force. She and others who didn’t agree with preservationists were labeled by some as development friendly – a notion that dePagter took exception to, she recalled.

“No one was trying to ruin the historic character of town or was in the back pocket of developers,” dePagter said. “It’s unfortunate that this issue is pulling apart this community, and I really wonder if it’s worth it.”

csack@aspentimes.com


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