Jack Hatfield will return to private life in January, after 12 years as a Pitkin County commissioner.
His first step into politics came in 1970 on Landis Green at Florida State University, amid the chaos of the heated protests that followed the shootings of Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University.
The governor was on the scene, and Hatfield, a philosophy student, approached him to talk about the students’ dissatisfaction.
“I was talking to the governor,” Hatfield recalled over coffee at Victoria’s. “We had the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and they were really raising hell. But I was trying to talk to the guy about how we wanted the ROTC off of our backs, so I stood up.”
That moment, or one like it, is captured in the cover photograph on then-university president Stan Marshall’s book, “The Tumultuous Sixties.” It shows a young Hatfield, wearing square hippie eyeglasses, a tank top and shoulder-length hair, his arms raised and flashing peace signs among a protesting crowd.
As a commissioner for three four-year terms, he’s cut a different figure, with his Cheech Marin mustache, Hawaiian shirts and detail-driven — sometimes stubborn — deliberations on county matters.
Hatfield moved to the Aspen area from Florida in 1972, like many young people, to escape the era’s tumult.
“It was a relief to get away from the battles, because I lived the battles — women’s rights, civil rights, Vietnam — that was me,” he said.
Eventually, though, he found himself on a new warfront here against resort development in Snowmass Village, where he settled and still lives.
“I saw a community in Snowmass Village going to hell,” he said. “Development pressure, road impacts, the ski area expansion, et cetera. And I just couldn’t be quiet anymore. Somebody had to get involved.”
Hatfield went from an outspoken citizen in the ’80s, to leading ballot initiatives in Snowmass Village, to running for office in Snowmass in the ’90s before he was elected as county commissioner in 2000.
“It’s been a very interesting life that I’ve had,” said Hatfield, now 66. “I’m proud of what I — and we — have achieved.”
On the county board, Hatfield often stood alone on 4-1 votes, including annual budgets and seemingly simple procedural matters where he couldn’t support an issue 100 percent. His record is one of fiscal conservatism, environmentalism and slow growth.
“I’ve never been a herd follower,” he said. “I have certain ways of thinking and I’ve always been an individual. ... If something is not all right to vote ‘yes,’ you’ve got to vote ‘no.’ I wouldn’t take back one vote.”
The Snowmass Village resident’s career as a local public servant extends far beyond his dozen years on the five-member board of Pitkin county commissioners. Hatfield previously spent two and a half years on the county’s planning and zoning commission, six years on Snowmass Village Town Council, starting in 1994, and 10 years on the Snowmass Water and Sanitation board, overlapping with his time as commissioner.
Before those positions, going back to the late 1980s, he spearheaded a Snowmass Village master planning ballot initiative in 1989 and the Burnt Mountain referendum aimed at stopping ski area expansion in 1992.
“It’s a lot,” Hatfield laughed. “So I feel good about retiring.”
He resigned from the planning and zoning commission after the board’s 3-2 approval of the base area development at Aspen Highlands, which he opposed.
“I didn’t mind the village, I just hated the homes on the side of the mountain,” he explained.
And even before Hatfield had titles before his name like councilman and commissioner, he waged local land-use battles on the editorial pages of the local newspapers.
As he became an outspoken letter-to-the-editor writer, the legendary former Commissioner Dwight Shellman began using Hatfield as a sounding board and encouraging him to run for office.
“Shellman used to call me, before I was ever elected, when I was fighting battles in letters to the editor,” Hatfield recalled. “He’d call me up and we started a friendship that lasted until his passing.”
Other mentors he points to are Commissioners Tom Blake and Bob Child, whose son, Steve, will succeed Hatfield on the county board.
He lost just one election over the years: his 1992 bid for Snowmass Village Town Council, which he lost by one vote.
Among the achievements he’s proudest of, he said, are the 2002 passage of the Healthy Community Fund, pledging property tax dollars for local social services and nonprofits, and the 2010 purchase of the Sky Mountain Park open space area from the Droste family. He also noted the 2006 purchase of the Grange Ranch, which he calls “the entrance to Pitkin County,” and the movement by the county to work regionally with neighboring counties.
He pointed to his time on the Snowmass Water and Sanitation board for another highlight, the 2006 purchase of the land for Ziegler Reservoir.
“Previous presidents of the board could never get it done,” he said. “Peter Ziegler came to me and said, ‘Jack, we know you, we respect you,’ and they asked me to represent the board [in negotiations].”
Hatfield has consistently won support from voters for his attempts to tamp down the progress of development, which began in his time as a councilman in Snowmass Village.
“When I was elected I was the first that was not pro-development, just laying down for the developers,” he said. “The whole board helped significantly change the way we did business in Snowmass Village — going so far as making Intrawest pay their bills.”
At the county, he’s often been the last commissioner asking questions and sussing out details before a vote, and often the only “no” vote.
“My foundation of beliefs are based on what I believe are Pitkin County core values,” he said. “Even if they don’t agree with me, people will say, ‘I will always vote for you.’ And because I’ve had a lot of support, I’ve had the freedom to tell it like it is.”
Looking forward, Hatfield said he sees some substantial challenges for both Snowmass Village and Pitkin County.
While he’s supported open space purchases with taxpayer funds, he is critical of what he sees as aggressive trail development from the county department.
“I’m very concerned that open space has become the development arm of the county, relative to trails,” he said. “It’s very disturbing.”
In Snowmass, he said, development interests will continue to carry the day.
“I predict as soon as the economy rights itself and there’s a new development proposal, the town council of Snowmass Village will never find a way to turn it down,” he said. “I just don’t have any faith. They are good, fine people but there’s no Jack Hatfields. On the development side, Snowmass Village has never been able to be tough and do what’s necessary.”
People have whispered in Hatfield’s ear about running for a seat on the Snowmass Water and Sanitation board in 2014, but he said he’s not interested. Other than following the Wexner land swap through the federal process, he said, he plans to stay out of local politics from now on.
Instead, he’s going back to his property management business, which he’s continued part-time while serving as a commissioner. He also plans to spend more time with his wife, Ruth. They are taking a trip to Italy this coming fall. And, he hopes to spend more time outdoors in the mountains, away from county meeting rooms, enjoying the peace and beauty that drew him here 40 years ago.
“I don’t think I can climb at the level I did 20 years ago,” he said. “But there’s a whole lot of beautiful country in the mountains and the desert that I hope to visit.”