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City Of Aspen Seeks Changes To Demolition Cap Program

City Of Aspen Seeks Changes To Demolition Cap Program

The city of Aspen is exploring changes to its controversial demolition allotment program, including the possibility of complete elimination. 

All five city council members said during a Feb. 26 work session that they supported some degree of change to the existing program. Some council members and public commenters questioned whether the program was necessary or effective in meeting the city's goals around demolition waste diversion, energy reporting and growth management.

With two council members supporting complete removal of the program and Mayor Torre expressing an openness to eliminating the program under specific circumstances, a majority of council could be in support of scrapping the allotment system altogether.

The city created the demolition allotment program while overhauling its land-use code in 2022. The program restricts the number of single-family and duplex demolitions in Aspen (projects requiring the removal of at least 40% of a structure) to six per year. Originally, the program assigned these six allotments on a first-come, first-served basis, but council changed that process to a lottery at the end of 2023. The program also allows two additional allotments per year for applicants who have owned Aspen homes for at least 35 years. 

The city is defending itself against at least one lawsuit related to the program, which was brought by property owners at 400 and 410 Lake Avenue in Aspen. Awarding the allotments also has caused headaches for the city after it received 406 application emails associated with only eight properties that were represented by a single firm (Aspen-based BendonAdams) in 2022.

The city’s subsequent efforts to address that initial chaotic response have led to administrative appeals from property owners and pushed council to temporarily increase its 2024 allotment number to eight. Meanwhile, a city memorandum reported that none of the allotment winners since 2022 have begun their demolition projects. 

“By and large, most of the applications we’re getting … are proposing demolition and taking the property back to greenfield, which means it’s not in preparation for a future design,” Community Development Director Ben Anderson said during the February work session. “It’s an entitlement that’s going along likely with a future real estate transaction and allows the future purchaser to design.” 

Anderson said in an interview that the allotments expire after three years. 

City officials, including council members and staff, have said they created the program to slow the pace of residential development in Aspen and reduce the amount of construction waste heading to the Pitkin County landfill, among other reasons. Officials during last month’s work session said the number of annual demolitions spiked dramatically in 2020, reaching more than three times their previous 10-year average of six per year.

Anderson said during the work session that Aspen residents were expressing concerns about the impact of large construction projects on their neighborhoods at the time. Anderson, who was a principal long-range planner when the program began, has said the city used an allotment system because its Growth Management Quota System already used such a mechanism to manage other kinds of projects. 

“Our previous council voted 5-0 in addressing community concerns about the direction of our community. We were unified in our belief that the rate of demolition was extremely out of balance with local year-round residents’ concerns about their quality of life,” Councilman John Doyle said during the work session. 

Doyle also emphasized the idea that older structures, even when more inefficient, are greener than new ones because of the emissions associated with new construction.

“The greenest building is the one that already exists,” Doyle said several times during the work session. 

Anderson said later in the meeting that there is conflicting data on whether maintaining older structures is always greener than building new ones.

Critics say the program has made a commodity out of demolition permits. It also has hamstrung local property owners without being necessary to accomplish the city’s goals. 

Local attorney Chris Bryan of Garfield & Hecht said in the public-comment portion of the city council’s Feb. 27 regular meeting that the program invites controversy and litigation. Bryan said the city can accomplish its goals without the problematic allotment system, and argued that the system includes some "good things” the city can build upon or keep without maintaining the cap on demolition permits. Bryan particularly referenced the program’s Residential Demolition and Redevelopment Standards, which require permitted demolition projects to keep 35% of a project’s waste out of the landfill.

Bryan noted that he has publicly opposed the program since its inception. While he is currently the lead attorney representing the Lake Avenue property owners in its lawsuit against the city, he said he initially opposed the policy as a concerned citizen intimate with city policy and law. 

He noted that the city of Boulder has imposed a 75% waste diversion requirement on its demolition projects, managing construction waste without capping the number of demolitions themselves. 

“They've got traffic issues and construction maintenance management issues and all sorts of environmental goals in Boulder, and they've got (a much larger) town … and they didn't put any (demolition) caps on there,” Bryan said during a recent interview. 

“(Boulder is) able to solve some of the problems you’re aiming to solve in a much more efficacious way that doesn’t cause a bunch of appeals and lawsuits,” he told council members during the meeting. 

Bryan said contractors in the Roaring Fork Valley already have the capacity to divert and recycle large amounts of construction waste, specifically mentioning Snowmass-based Stutsman Gerbaz Earthmoving. In an interview, the company’s president Shay Stutsman said that in five projects completed using the Green Halo waste accounting system during 2023, his company achieved an average 84% waste diversion rate — more than twice the rate required by the city’s demolition program

Diverted waste is either sold, reused on subsequent projects or recycled. Stutsman said his staff traveled to Switzerland to learn the waste diversion techniques currently used there.

Stutsman said reaching the high diversion rate is worth the extended project durations. He added that high waste diversion usually involves fewer truckloads passing through neighborhoods as diverted waste is typically condensed into more compact loads.

Mayor Torre said he and Bryan were nearly aligned after the attorney’s comments at the meeting. 

“That felt good — I think Chris almost agreed with me there for a second,” Torre said.

Torre said during the previous night’s work session that his highest priority for the demolition allotment program was waste diversion and that he may consider eliminating the program if the city addresses that concern separately. Torre said the demolition allotment program was not the right tool to address other concerns like residential development and conversion of residential properties from occupied homes to real estate investments. 

"I don’t think this is the program to approach or attack some of those issues,” Torre said. “If we just simply put in a 75% (waste) diversion rate, I almost don’t need a demo programming cap.”

As Councilmen Bill Guth and Sam Rose have already said they support elimination of the program, Torre’s additional support would give council the necessary votes to scrap the demolition allotment program entirely.

Council directed staff during their work session to begin the formal process necessary to change the city’s land-use code. Council could implement a variety of changes through this process, including elimination.

Doyle and Councilman Ward Hauenstein have not expressed support for program elimination. Instead, they both said they were interested in exploring a reduced ownership requirement for the "longtime local” allotments. Hauenstein also voiced support for increased lottery weight for applicants with old structures or a history of losing lotteries, and mechanisms to reduce commodification of demolition permits.

Anderson said in an interview that while the program has faced some issues, it is still too early to judge it. 

“It has been a little bit more challenging to administer than we had anticipated, but I just think it's premature (to evaluate the program),” he said. 

Anderson said during the work session that in five years, the city will have collected enough data through the program to evaluate whether it is worth continuing. Included in that data will be evidence of whether maintaining older structures is more climate-friendly than construction of newer, more energy-efficient ones. 

 “Five years from now, as 15 or more of the allotted demolition projects are complete and have provided a set of examples and connected data on which to evaluate the program, and no tangible benefits are identified — staff would likely be advocates for getting rid of the demolition allotment program,” Anderson wrote in a city memo.

For Bryan, the data justifying the existence of the program should have been collected before its implementation. 

“When people want the policy on a whim and a hope and a prayer that it's gonna work, that really makes me nervous because that means there's been no data driving those policy decisions,” Bryan said in the interview. 


By: Austin Corona| Aspen Daily News I March 6, 2024

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