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ISSUE #113: The ANTithesis of Optimism

"What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step,too."           -- Chuck Palahniuk 


May 5 looms like a dark cloud on the Aspen horizon.  You see, it's municipal election time yet again in the People's Republic of Aspen and we might just be in for a doozy.  Every two years, two of the four sitting city council members must run for re-election since they serve 4-year terms, and the mayoral post, with just a 2-year term, is always up for grabs.  This cycle, sitting councilmen Dwayne Romero and Adam Frisch are up - Frisch has thrown his hat into the ring, however Romero has elected not to do so, citing family obligations and his professional commitments in Snowmass.  Steve Skadron will run for re-election following his first 2-year term as mayor.

Now here's where it gets juicy: the old dragon is back.  At least he wants to come back.  Former mayor Mick Ireland is running for one of the two council seats.  His platform?  "It's always about the local economy," Ireland told the Aspen Times.  "About not letting the real estate, second home, residential industry basically snuff the local economy and the tourist economy."  In other words, class warfare!  Imagine that!?  It's been quite nice having him out of local government these past two years but it's widely speculated that the erstwhile tax attorney who has made elected office his profession in truth really needs the $22,000 annual stipend and healthcare that accompanies a council seat.  The good news, judging by online comments after the announcement of Ireland's candidacy, is that Aspen is indeed quite Sick of Mick (see website from 2011) but one cannot overlook the sad fact that the guy has won every election where he's been on the ballot.  Mick's controversial tenure in local office is sure to bring out some entertaining letters to the editor in coming weeks, and leave it to Neil Siegel to put it perfectly:

"The true architect of the art museum and other grotesque, out-of-scale buildings is asking voters for (at least) four more years in office.  No amount of gibberish on the part of the former mayor can erase from the cityscape his legacy, and Aspen will have to endure it for generations to come.  That alone should be a disqualifier for future public office.  And let's not forget his complete turnaround that placed a knife in the back of the broad consensus for the Lift 1A development, dooming an opportunity that has come and gone.  Other than his own ego, it is difficult to discern what type of "growth" he truly favors.  What makes the candidacy of our former mayor so utterly stuffed with hypocrisy is that he has the gall to contend that his past mistakes are actually a plus.  Simply put, going forward, Aspen should not be punished for any more of Mick Ireland's mistakes."  God help us.

Only a tad less nauseating (but pretty nauseating none-the-less) is the return of Torre, the one-named tennis instructor who has twice graced us as a councilman.  This time, Torre is making his fifth run for mayor.  The Torre vs Skadron match-up is notable given that the two squared off just two years ago in a run-off for mayor where Skadron narrowly prevailed.  This time, Torre has been quick to jump on the "no variances" platform championed by Mick Ireland and others in the community who have spearheaded the effort to get a measure on the ballot that will relieve council of its responsibilities to grant development waivers; instead, those requesting variances will have their request determined by a vote of the people.  My early prediction is that this one is a toss-up, and the momentum is frighteningly with the "no variance" crowd.

Look for further details on each of the candidates in the next issue of The Red Ant, including answers to a brief survey.  In the meantime, prepare to be uninspired.  Here are the names of the other candidates for city council:

  • Andy Israel (former commercial real estate professional with a Wharton MBA who currently operates AspenSpin, a local blog)
  • Bert Myrin (attorney and seven-year member of the city's planning and zoning commission, and the architect of "Keep Aspen Aspen," the "no variance" ballot measure)
  • Tom McCabe (former Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority director)
  • Marcia Goshorn (Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority board member)
  • Keith Goode (planning and zoning commission member)


The May 5, 2015, municipal election will be a mail ballot election.  Registered voters in the city of Aspen will receive an official ballot at their mailing address on their voter registration.  To register, confirm or correct your mailing address, visit

*** If you expect to be absent from your mailing address from April 13 - May 5, you may request to vote absentee-by-mail.  HERE is the link for an application for an Absentee Voter Ballot.  Please note: The Post Office will NOT forward ballots!

And be advised, should either of the races necessitate a run-off, that election will be held on June 2.  Details tbd, but I'll let you know.  For further information, contact the city clerk 970-429-2687


Frustrated by wheelings and dealings between city council and various developers over the years (think: Art Museum and other "settlements" that enabled property owners to negotiate waivers on mass and scale, parking, subsidized housing mitigation, etc.), local anti-development, no-growth zealots seek to punish city council (and stifle development) by changing the city charter so as to remove council's ability to grant any variance to a land use application in the commercial core (CC), commercial (C-1), Service/Commercial/Industrial (SCI), neighborhood commercial (NC), mixed use (MU), lodge (L), commercial lodge (CL), lodge overlay (LO) and lodge preservation (LP) zone districts.  Some exclusions apply, including single family homes and duplexes.

This is clearly a land use issue and the solution is not with a change to city charter.  It has long been known that Aspen's land use code is ridiculously complex and doesn't apply equally to all comers, yet the sitting council did nothing until the 11th hour to even address making the long-overdue changes.  (In the end, they elected to do nothing, but they did discuss it once the "no variance" measure was officially on the ballot.)  As a result, the "Keep Aspen Aspen" campaign has built significant momentum and is well positioned to prevail in May.  If this happens, all variance requests in the aforementioned categories will be put to a public vote.  In other words, the local voters will decide property owners' fates based on the "what's in it for me" mentality that so pervades the local electorate.  Think: mob-ocracy.

 In The Red Ant's humble opinion, as reflected in an email I received from a reader, the need to update and simplify the land use code is "up against people with a compulsive desire to make rules, to control what isn't theirs, and presume they have the greater wisdom, in this case not only among their contemporaries but among all yet to come."  In other words, the class warfare-waging element of the Aspen voter base.  More to follow on this sorry state of affairs.


Late on a Friday afternoon, the city of Aspen's community development department sent out a seemingly innocuous email -- its March newsletter.  The contents of the newsletter, however, shocked and awed local architecture and development businesses.   Citing council's November 2014 approval of new development fees for the utility department "to offset the costs of the department's plans review and inspection functions for new permits," the new fees were presented as thus:

For MINOR REVIEW of new construction (projects with 100 - 10,000sf of affected area) the utilities development permit fee which had previously been $0 (subsidized by existing water customers and reviewed by existing staff), increased to $1.50/sf with an additional review fee of 65% of the permit fee.

Yep, so a 5000sf house would be charged as follows:

Permit fee:    5000 x $1.50 = $7500

Review fee:    $7500 x 65% = $4875

Total Utilities Development Fee:  $7500 - $4875 = $12,375 (in the past, this total would have been $0)

And yes, this fee is in addition to the "water tap" fees. 

For MAJOR REVIEW of new construction (projects with more than 10,000sf of affected area), the utilities development permit fee which had previously been based on a proposal and invoicing from the city water engineer and reviewed by existing city staff, increased to $0.75/sf with an additional review fee of 65% of the permit fee.

For a BASIC PROJECT (remodel, repair, addition to existing structure), the utilities development review and permit fees were previously subsidized by existing water customers and performed by existing city staff (smaller projects) and/or for larger projects, an outside engineering consultant was used, which developers/owners would paid for directly. With the NEW fee structure, the addition of 0.01 to 0.05 ECUs (Equivalent Customer Units - a measure of average consumption of either water or electricity) will cost a flat rate of $50. The addition of more than 0.05 ECUs now costs $59.09 per 0.05 ECU.

How did these significant fee increases sneak through?  They were buried in a massive 2015 Budget Development packet that council approved as part of Fee Ordinance #36 late last fall.  See it on page 28 HERE.  Recall that several years ago (in one of Mick's administrations), the city embarked on an initiative to cover the full cost of every service activity with fee revenue.  Isn't it enough that we pay their salaries?  At the time, they published a 600+ page budget book that covered their analysis of each fee-generating activity.  Plain and simple: this is the city's initiative to generate even more income without having to go to the voters.  (Council can approve fees without having to deal with TABOR - the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.)  What do you want to bet that this fee increase was never even discussed by council before they voted to enact it as of January 1 of this year?  It certainly raised no objection nor was it covered in the papers.  The city exacts so much from us in fees, it makes one wonder what tax money is used for anymore!


In yet another act of abject stupidity, city hall has recently brought forth plans to NARROW the traffic lanes on the Castle Creek bridge.  Yes, you are reading that correctly.  The idea stems from the Open Space and Trails board and Aspen's powerful ride-your-bike-everywhere lobby, and the unconscionable details were recently developed by the city's engineering department and presented to council.  The gist of the plan is to spend $2.7 million (in reality it will surely double) to remove 1' from each of the two lanes of the Castle Creek bridge (Aspen's primary access artery and already the source of massive traffic congestion) in order to widen the existing pedestrian walkway to 8'.  The concept is to make the walkway a "multi-use" corridor for both pedestrians and bicyclists. Currently, bicyclists, even though they have a dedicated bike path through the Marolt property and onto Hopkins Avenue, illegally use the "pedestrians only" walkway to cross the bridge to conveniently access the West End and this is quite dangerous.  Ya think?!  

Thankfully council has sent the foolhardy proposal back to the engineering department for further public input as well as traffic studies, but it is rather unbelievable that anyone would even consider constricting the entrance to Aspen!  The plan, originally slated to be snuck past council for a spring 2015 start date, should be completely tossed and started over from scratch.  To enable cycling enthusiasts (who do not represent the majority of our town and never will) to dictate a major change to traffic flow into and out of Aspen is idealistic at best.  For now, the plan has been pushed back to spring 2016, but is being overseen by the same city employee who oversaw the intersection "remodel" at Gondola Plaza.  Remember how well THAT worked out with the "face-planters" that, under the guise of serving as stormwater drains, ate up a not only a well-used bus stop but several unwitting pedestrians?!  Keep your eye on this one. 


City council is set to choose the least worst of five applicants for tenancy at the 7200sf city-owned Old Power House where the Aspen Art Museum used to be.  Their idealistic goals are to give the space to the non-profit entity most in need of space that would reach the broadest base of the community.  I spoke out at a recent work session about the applicants and their proposed uses for the facility.  If the city "needs" 70,000sf of new in-town office space (or so they say), how can they possibly justify giving a city-owned facility of this size away? Needless to say, despite the obvious financial offsets to the future tenant, I am none too keen on establishing the Old Power House as some sort of rental "party barn" where any and all comers can lease the space for large throw-downs, not the least of which is because the facility is located in a densely populated residential neighborhood.  Mine.

Here is what I said to council:  "The Old Power House, located at the junction of South Mill Street, Gibson Avenue, North Spring Street, and Red Mountain Road, is also uniquely situated in a residential neighborhood that, despite its density, enjoys a remarkable quality of life and quiet enjoyment.  For well over 30 years, the neighborhood has grown up around this historic structure. Unlike those who foolishly buy penthouses above bars and amidst restaurants and then complain when the noise is too great, those in this neighborhood have enjoyed a collegial, quiet and neighborly relationship with the Power House's last tenant, the Aspen Art Museum.  The Art Museum operated during business hours and on the rare occasions when they held evening events on-site, they notified the entire neighborhood in advance by mail with details on the event, its nature and especially the timeframe when we might expect to hear noise emanating from its property.  There were few if any problems because the events did not run late into the evening.  We are sorry that they have moved.  The Art Museum was a great neighbor and steward of the Power House.

The applications before you are certainly diverse. And I respect your attempts to bring some sort of "utopian use" of the facility to the community.  But really.... How about first, do no harm.  There are several infrastructure issues that need to be addressed before ANY group is given a lease. 

  • First, where will people park?  There are just 22 parking spaces on the property.  Furthermore, South Mill Street, Gibson Avenue, North Spring Street and Red Mountain Road all prevent on-street parking, and the junction of the 4 is hardly conducive for a bus stop or for cab/shuttle drop-off.  And don't say "park at Clark's" - we all know Britt the boot guy will put an end to that in no time! 
  • Second, what will the operating hours be, and I point out to you again that the Power House is currently zoned residential (R-30 with a PD overlay).  A STRICT curfew that honors the residential neighborhood needs to be established and set in stone long before any lease is executed.  While there may be a "desire" for "party barn" usage of this facility to offset costs for the occupants, the neighborhood will simply not stand for it. 
  • Third, pedestrian access is troublesome at best at this location. Have you walked the pathway from the Hunter Creek bus stop to the Power House?  Very few pedestrians walk all the way down Gibson to cross at Red Mountain Road and back up the other side; they just cross the hill on Gibson, a steep hill that is icy most of the winter.  I cringe at the thought of kids running across that street to science camp! 
  • And the on-site café issue - is this really necessary?  Again, there is terrible access to the facility and to exacerbate this with an attempt to draw even more people who are stopping by to pick up a pizza is simply ludicrous.  The Art Museum managed to survive (and thrive) without an on-site eatery.

Given the nature of its residential neighborhood location, there are very few optimal uses for the Old Power House.  My personal choice is to spare the community the cost and your desire for 70,000 new square feet of office space in the core and instead choose to house non-in town-essential municipal functions in the 7200sf space: human resources, IT, special events, there are plenty of potential city users.  Heck, even the police department.  But if this body is going to insist on giving 7200 sf of publicly-owned space away, please take into account the inherent challenges of the space as well as the quality of life and quiet enjoyment of those who live nearby. 

Three of the five applicants have BIG plans for BIG events at the Power House: the Gathering Place wants a community center there, GrassRootsTV proposes a nifty archive lounge and larger tv studios - but with a space for large public events for up to 250 people, and the Brewery/Incubator concept brings us an expanded brewery and beer garden coupled with a shared-workspace incubator situation, a tv studio and on-site event planners who hope to lease the facility for public and private events that are expected to raise over $1 million the first year.  No thank you.  Not in a residential neighborhood.

On the other hand, the Red Brick has its sights on performing arts and rehearsal space including a stage for up to 160 people.  Assuming that they can manage the "where to park" and "how to get there" challenges, they have already proven themselves as excellent managers of a city-owned facility that also happens to be located in a residential neighborhood.  They get it.

The Science Center too has a nice neighborhood appeal.  With a proper curfew for the outdoor stage and amphitheater and some serious work on kid-pedestrian access, this too could work at the space.

Council, idealism is nice.  But this is a public asset and I ask you to please take reality into account when making your decision. Please, do no harm."

Council is expected to make a decision next week.  I expect it to be a purely political decision, and what is authorized by law (such as zoning) will have nothing to do with it.


Recent articles in our daily papers promoted what is clearly a city-driven cover-up of Parking-Gate.  Late last year, council approved $48K for an independent audit of the city's cash handling, transaction accounting and recording procedures, and the results are apparently in.  Of course, the results came in to the city manager and not council and the city then gleefully promoted that contrary to popular belief and speculation, the city ONLY lost $230K in the scam.  This info was released to the papers late on a Friday afternoon and they ran with what the city said, clearly not reading the report.  The report itself tells quite a different story.  My friend Maurice Emmer encapsulates it best in his immediate response to the paper:

"The March 6 Aspen Times reports the city 'actually' lost $230,000 on the parking scam.  The article, based on a memo and report released at 4 PM on a Friday when little attention is paid, is incorrect; a reading of the article and the report on which it is based confirms that the 'actual' loss is unknown.

The report commissioned by the city acknowledges that $692,000 of fraudulent transactions occurred.  The report then applies 'models' based on 'assumptions' to claim that the actual loss is in the neighborhood of ONLY $230,0000.  A typical 'assumption' is that fraudulent parkers would not have parked if they actually had had to pay.  Maybe.  But if fraudulent parkers hadn't occupied the spaces, maybe paying parkers would have.  Who knows?  I only know that the 'models' and 'estimates' used in the report leave many questions of accuracy.

Was the report designed to minimize the loss and save face for city management?  Notably, the report is not rendered to city council, as required by the City Charter.  It appears that city management ran the relationship with this 'independent' auditor.  Otherwise, the report would have been rendered directly to city council without city management intervention.

The cover memo from the City Finance Director acknowledges that 12 lapses in cash management are revealed in the report.  One in particular bears on the parking department: 'Ability to divert parking credit card proceeds' - The contract with Global Payments, the City's credit card processor, is currently signed solely by the Controller. This one individual can establish and change the bank account to which City revenue streams are deposited, which would allow the controller to divert revenues from the City to their personal bank account.'  It was suggested to city council months ago that it should investigate whether the city received all the proceeds it should have from the GOOD credit and debit card transactions.  This report fails to do so.

When a parker uses a valid card in one of Aspen's machines, the money doesn't go directly to the city.  There is at least one intermediary that could skim funds.  Only a proper audit would detect skimming.  The money goes first to the credit card collection company or the Canadian parking company, and only later to the City of Aspen.  The above instance of lax cash control confirms it would be possible for some of the city's money never to reach the city.  (If this was not a realistic possibility the auditors wouldn't have mentioned it.)  It was specifically suggested to city council in the past that the auditors should trace the cash proceeds from their initial deposit in the credit card collection account to insure that they ultimately got to the city's account.  This would detect any skimming.  The report does not indicate this was done.

I wish I could say that the results of audit work commissioned by the City of Aspen had settled the questions of how much the city lost on the scam and whether the city receives (even today) all the money it should from the parking system.  Sadly, the audit work missed the mark on both counts."

And in a council work session to examine the report, it became abundantly clear that the scope of work was actually more a high level evaluation of risk than an actual audit of specific parking transactions and revenue.  In other words, the entire $48K effort was a diversionary tactic to change the focus from the missing money to possible future process changes, not that these aren't necessary.  And to add insult to injury, the presentation was wrapped up with some "joking" about fraud, when in fact, it was fraud that the audit was originally designed to uncover.  Classic Aspen city hall:  nothing matters... (And what if it did?)

I'll be watching to see what council actually decides to do next.  One thing is clear, however, they still are unwilling to hold city manager Steve Barwick accountable for gross dereliction of duty.  He has failed in his management duties and failed to communicate such problems to council (and the public). Barwick has only succeeded in again sweeping a major scandal under the rug.

There is also widespread conjecture that there might be a different kind of parking scam currently in play.  Apparently, after using a credit card to pay the meter, several residents have reported hearing from their credit card companies that their cards had been "compromised" and therefore cancelled.  It is suspected by many that the origin of said "compromise" is the parking meters.  It seems something hinky is going on.  Buyer beware.


Ever had to get permission to cut down a tree in the city of Aspen?  As you can imagine, like everything else, it's not easy!  Native trees 3+" in diameter, coniferous trees (pine, spruce, fir, cedar) 4+" in diameter and deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves seasonally) 5+" in diameter all require a tree removal permit (see it HERE).  In addition to fees (determined by construction or non-construction related), a city forester will determine the "value" of the tree ($41 x 3.14 x (D/2) squared).  In other words, that 6" diameter tree that you just want moved (non-construction related) will cost you, if approved:

 Application fee:        $75

Value of tree:           $41 x 3.14 x (3 squared =9) = $1158.66

Mitigation plan (relocation of tree or replacement):  as determined by city manager of parks and recreation or his designee in an effort to preserve to the fullest extent possible existing trees considered desirable.

Total:  $1233, before mitigation

And then one fine Wednesday in February, over TWENTY large coniferous trees were cut down on Galena Plaza, east of the Library and west of the jail.  This was done to make room for the library expansion which just got underway and in anticipation of reconfiguring Galena Plaza.  Here are a couple shocking before and after photos that I took that day.

Apparently the city can lop down old growth trees with impunity, but if you have a tree on your private property, get ready to pay to get permission to take it down.  Greenies In Name Only = GINOs.  Ahhh, the hypocrisy!


Hot off the press - the long-awaited residential job generation study is finally here.  Or, more accurately, it has finally been publicly released.  The study, commissioned over a year ago, was allegedly designed to address the hotly-contended issue of subsidized housing mitigation requirements for single-family and duplex construction.  Recall that the city feels strongly that an increase in square footage translates directly to the need for more full-time workers in town who need subsidized housing.  Those of us who have been awaiting the survey's release are not surprised by the results.  The numbers clearly do not support the city's narrative and they have obviously been scrambling (and likely working with the marketing research firm to "massage" the numbers to help their cause).

 In short, the city is contemplating changes to its subsidized housing mitigation requirements.  The city currently requires the provision of an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or cash-in-lieu payment when a house is demolished and replaced with a larger house.  The current requirements are based on a 1990 ordinance that established a standard of one-full time employee for a house of 3000sf of floor area.  The new study (still in draft form so don't get excited) suggests this standard should be LOWERED to .445 employees for a house of 3000sf of floor area.  This would lower the cash-in-lieu requirement from $79.97 per sf to approximately $35.59.  Again, this is surely a huge disappointment to the city.  Their subsidized-housing-need-generation belief completely ignores the obvious:  given our enormous subsidized housing portfolio, any local employee hired (for a wide variety of services) beyond the construction phase is likely underemployed and happy to have the work!  And let's not forget the number of folks who do their own "work" at home!

HERE's the draft study if you're so inclined.  I'll be at the exciting open house on the topic in a couple weeks and will report back on what I learn.

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