While offering thanks to a group of citizens that worked for several weeks on new concepts relating to energy conservation and residential construction, Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday kept alive the idea of reducing the 15,000-square-foot maximum home size.
The citizens group, which included former Aspen mayor Bill Stirling, met weekly for 14 weeks this year to come up with alternatives to last year’s proposal from county community development staff that would reduce the maximum allowable square footage for a new home to about 10,750 square feet. The 2018 draft proposal also recommends substantial increases in fees relating to the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, commonly known as REMP.
Those ideas raised the ire of the local development community last fall. In late November, county commissioners asked staff to expand its outreach on the issue, which led to the formation of what Stirling on Tuesday described as a “task force.” In lieu of reducing the cap on house sizes, increasing REMP fees and making changes to the program relating to transferable development rights, or TDRs, the group — largely comprised of members of the development community — has proposed what may be an untested approach to address the county’s goals of reducing energy consumption.
Though the details of the “energy budget” plan were not hashed out during Tuesday’s work session, the idea revolves around the concept of setting “energy budgets” tailored to specific homebuilding projects. Generally, fees would be applied toward estimated excesses of energy consumption by interior and exterior amenities such as appliances, snowmelt driveways, heated pools, hot tubs and other energy-sucking devices, instead of being applied in the traditional way, which involves calculations surrounding square footage.
First to speak at the end of a staff presentation, Commissioner George Newman said to him, the “elephant in the room” relates to house sizes.
“Because we know from our studies [that] over 7,500 square feet, energy use goes up exponentially,” he said.
Newman said that while making homes more energy-efficient and reducing the county’s overall carbon footprint are important challenges, so is maintaining the area’s rural character.
He noted that in a 2018 community survey, a vast majority of county residents indicated the importance of maintaining the county’s rural character. They also expressed a desire to keep house sizes in check.
“So, we’re hearing from one group here, which is great, but there’s a whole other constituency that we represent, and that’s what we’re hearing from our survey,” he said.
While the citizen group has touted off-site mitigation as one of many ways to address energy consumption, Newman expressed concern about that idea, suggesting that it doesn’t equate to the county’s goal of reducing energy consumption locally.
“Where would that off site be? Are we going to go to Nebraska to mitigate?” he asked rhetorically.
Newman said he believes the county should continue to look at reducing the maximum home size to around 10,000 square feet. He said that few homes are being built in the 15,000-square-foot range anyway. And the ones that do exist are under-utilized, though they still use up a lot of energy because owners are paying to keep them maintained year-round.
“They’re sitting vacant for most of the year, not only taking up enormous [amounts of] energy on site, but all the resources needed to maintain them through the property management company,” he said.
As downzoning in the county proved to be successful in the 1970s, “I think downsizing will be successful as well as we address some of these issues,” Newman added.
Commissioner Patti Clapper said she’s open to the “whole project energy budget” concept, but said if research shows that some elements of it won’t work, she’d be willing to look at house-size reductions again.
Clapper thanked the citizen group for bringing a great amount of information to the table.
“We asked for it, and we want it,” she said.
Commissioner Steve Child said it’s been proven that large houses and other buildings can have an overall “net-zero” impact on greenhouse gases.
He urged those involved in the planning process to consider incentives for more below-grade space in rural areas, saying that houses with below-grade space are more energy-efficient. With less of the home visible, such structures would be “more in keeping with our rural values,” Child said.
He echoed Newman in expressing concern about the number of people required to maintain large homes year-round. They are consuming energy by having to drive from other areas, including downvalley, to get to Pitkin County to remove snow, trim lawns and keep unoccupied houses in top shape, he said.
Such residences are operated “just as if it’s a business,” he said. As such, perhaps affordable-housing regulations should be applied to the workforce of those homes, Child suggested.
Kelly McNicholas Kury, the county’s newest commissioner, noted that there is much to consider, including the idea of neighborhood solar farms to offset energy consumption linked to fossil fuels.
The discussion of home sizes, she said, relates to more than just energy use. The county also has to examine how reducing home sizes relates to other community goals and values, Kury said.
“These are the places where we raise our kids and create our memories, and we want to be excited about our interaction with our built environment,” she added.
Commissioner Greg Poschman said that in trying to reduce its carbon footprint and plan for the betterment of the entire community, the county faces enormous challenges.
“Our kids are the ones who are going to be living in these houses, and they are probably going to be asking us how come we didn’t do it smarter,” he said.
Poschman said that if the county is going to strive for “net-zero” environmental impact of smaller houses, it should do the same for large ones.
“It’s nothing less than a ‘Manhattan Project’ or a ‘moon shot’ that we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said.
The topic will be addressed again at work sessions set for June 11 and July 2. The process, which involves changes to the county land-use code, is expected to take several months.