Pitkin County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to support a resolution approving a permit for the Aspen Fire Protection District’s plans to build a 15-unit affordable housing development next to its North 40 substation.
Many residents of the nearby North 40 neighborhood have spoken against the proposal over the last year, primarily over issues related to height and density. The process on the road to approval also had its complications; the Board of County Commissioners first took up the matter on July 8 following a Planning & Zoning Commission “location and extent” review which, at the time, suggested that P&Z would be the sole deciders of the project application.
But a P&Z majority voted against the project in that review, a decision that was overturned by the fire district’s board, a response that is allowed because the district is its own governmental jurisdiction. From there, the county’s Community Development department determined that the district must obtain a “permit for development in areas of state interest” from the BOCC because of the property’s proximity to Highway 82, the Baltic Avenue intersection, RFTA bus stops and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport,
Neither the first July meeting nor a subsequent BOCC review in August resulted in a decision, which led to the matter being continued to Wednesday’s regular meeting. In the end, the application was approved 5-0 after planners for the fire district scaled down the project slightly, from 17 units to 15 units and from building heights of 32 feet to 28 feet.
Commissioner Patti Clapper, who has longtime familial ties to the fire district, said after the meeting she is happy the district will have additional and much-needed affordable housing, but the entire process was “frustrating.” Put simply, because of the nature of the “location and extent” and “state interest” permit reviews, county officials had little control over the project.
“Our hands were pretty much tied and tied tightly,” she said.
Another of Clapper’s concerns was the BOCC resolution’s language granting the permit. She pointed out that a fire district referendum in 2018 sought a property tax increase, in part, to pay for affordable housing for “firefighters,” as was noted in the referendum language. The BOCC resolution did not mirror that language, instead referring to “first responders.” Clapper successfully moved for that aspect of the resolution’s language to be deleted.
“I take exception to that,” Clapper said. “I think you need to be very careful in following your ballot language, because [in 2018] the voters voted to give them a lot of money – millions and millions of dollars.”
She said electors in the district might take exception to straying from tax-ballot language, which could have resulted in legal action against the district or the BOCC or both.
“I didn’t want the county to be brought into a lawsuit in the future,” Clapper said.
Also, BOCC denial of the permit under the limited scope of the “areas of state interest” review could have been grounds for a lawsuit itself, she said. “All of the information that we were getting said that we didn’t really have a reason to [reject it],” Clapper said.
Overall, she said she liked the project’s design and believes the need for fire personnel housing is real. She does, however, object to the project’s cost of roughly $1 million per unit.
“It’s costing the taxpayers to build a very, very expensive project,” she said.
Other issues that came up during the three commissioner-level discussions and related public hearings concerned parking, use of a nearby park, deed restrictions and the effect on neighborhood traffic patterns.
In addition to the 15 units, which will encompass 21,000 square feet, plans call for a 20,000-square-foot underground parking garage with a minimum of 30 spaces. In addition, the project will include a 500-square-foot multi-purpose building and 14 surface parking spaces for residents, which would be located on the street and within the development apron. The entire lot area on which the substation currently sits, and where the housing complex would be built, is 1.46 acres.
Commissioner George Newman said he believes everyone in the community appreciates the need to house fire district personnel, and that support for them “was never the issue.” Fire district officials, including Chief Rick Balentine, have continually stressed that it has become increasingly difficult to fill positions within the department because of the lack of affordable-housing options in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
“Similar to Patti, I have a long relationship with fire departments as well,” Newman said before casting his vote, holding up a medal that was given to his father for his 50 years of service as a volunteer firefighter.
“If this had been a private application,” Newman said, “I would have denied it, or at least as a board I think we would have been able to come up with negotiations or compromises for fewer units and less density.”
Ten to 12 units would have been more acceptable to the neighborhood and commissioners, Newman said. “This [process] has sort of drawn out unfortunately,” he added.