Aspen City Council has retreated from its previous talk of sanctions and penalties against the developer of a spec home originally believed to have run afoul of its building approvals.
The council instead has signed off on an ordinance in support of a major amendment to Leathem Stearm’s residential project at 1001 Ute Ave.
Wednesday’s decision was a continuation of Tuesday’s pubic hearing on the matter, and it signaled an about-face by a council that in November called for tough penalties against Stearn, such as withholding the home’s certificate of occupancy, a measure that would cripple the developer’s plan to sell the luxury property.
Upon further review, however, the council members learned various city departments had approved a number the project’s elements initially believed to be out of compliance with its approvals.
Stearn also took measures to correct some of the issues that came to light in advance of this week’s public hearing.
“I’m a small-town, community guy,” Stearn told the council Wednesday. “I love Aspen. I just want this thing to be an asset to the community and I’ve worked with staff and generations of staff have worked diligently. I think we’ve accomplished a lot and obviously messed up a few things.”
This week’s two-part hearing came after the council met with Stearn’s representatives during a first reading of the ordinance Nov. 11. In its form at that meeting, the ordinance sought “approval to memorialize” the planned development’s improvements that were inconsistent with the council’s original approvals made in 2006.
The council approved first reading for the purposes of it advancing to a public hearing for final approval, but they offered harsh remarks about what they were being asked to approve during the November meeting. The developer was criticized for the improvements to the property, while the council also wondered how it had gotten to this point.
Examples included the property’s exterior and retaining walls built larger than originally approved encroachment upon city open space, building at a higher elevation than what was approved, and failing to make its on-site tennis courts ADA compliant as part of an agreement with the city.
The city began investigating the project’s compliance earlier this year as a result of a neighbor’s complaint that a portion of developer’s free-market home project’s air-conditioning units and staircase were encroaching on common area open space. That led to the city’s discovery of other infractions.
Meanwhile, on the recommendation of City Attorney Jim True during Tuesday’s portion of the hearing, the council interrupted the hearing to go into executive session, a type of closed-door discussion typically reserved for legal, personnel and confidential city-business matters.
Prior to the executive session, City Planner Kevin Rayes told council that a site review last week showed the AC unit had been removed and that the two tennis courts on The Gant property were in the process of being made ADA compliant. The original condition of the approval required the development of three on-site tennis courts by the residential property, with ADA accessibility from Ute Avenue, that the developers would lease to The Gant — a condominium-hotel across the street — for 100 years.
Sara Adams, a planner representing Stearn, said their understanding had been ADA requirements would be satisfied by making the courts on The Gant property accessible to the disabled.
“The Gant was supportive of it and the building department was supportive of it,” she said. “That was our thought process.”
Rayes had noted that the project presented changes orders to city staff in 2008, something Scott Miller, the city’s public works director, expanded on after the meeting resumed after the executive session. The heart of the problem, city officials said, was that selective departments would approve requested changes to the project, but those approvals weren’t relayed to other department officials also involved with the project.
Miller said the city’s departments in engineering, community development, parks and utilities “have reviewed literally hundreds of pages of documents” concerning the Ute Avenue development. He called it a “very complex project” that exposed some flaws in the city’s former system of plan and site review. The city has taken steps to improve that process while reducing its inefficiencies, he said.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons in plan review and in permit processing,” Miller said. “And the com dev, engineering and the utilities especially, but all departments that touch building permits for probably the last eight years have worked on improving the process.”
The improvements have included the city’s streamlining its building permit processes through an electronic plan review and submittal, as well as the creation of permit coordinator positions, “which helps to process these hundreds of pages and makes it a lot easier to review changes,” Miller said, noting permits that used to go to engineering without oversight from community development are now under the purview of the permit coordinators. That more recent model has stopped issues — like the ones that cropped up on the Ute Avenue property — from “falling through the cracks,” Miller said.
“We have improved the time it takes to review plans and issue permits,” Miller said. “Do we still have a along way to go? Sure, we do. But the kinds of things we’re talking about tonight, I’m not going to say we wouldn’t make the mistake again, but we’ve come a long way improving the process, and not only the permit process, but reviewing these things in the field.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards, one of the more vocal council members about the issue when it came to their attention, said that was a satisfactory explanation.
“I think that’s as important to me as the ‘how did we get here,’ and now this is where we are,” Richards said.
Mayor Torre recused himself from participating because of the tennis pro’s association with The Gant. Councilwoman Ann Mullins did not make the meeting.
Still unfinished, the home rests on an eastern slope of Aspen Mountain and near the Ute Trail. It sits on a 21,636-square-foot lot. A second free-market house in the immediate area, also owned by Stearn, gained its certificate of occupancy in 2011.