No more monster homes in Aspen?

Officials catch flak - even from folks who aren't rich and famous - for growth-control tactic.

It's the quintessential ski-resort town, virtually synonymous with a life of luxury, even excess.

Among the snow-dusted stands of evergreen, timber-and-glass mansions routinely exceed 9,000 square feet - one colossal residence even tops 50,000 square feet. Actors Michael Douglas and Don Johnson live in Aspen. And the average home price runs about $2 million.

So when county officials recently passed a measure banning the construction of homes larger than 3,500 square feet - a mere cottage by Aspen's standards - many residents were infuriated.

But surprisingly, a healthy part of the outcry has come from the people the law was intended to help - low- and middle-income workers who often have to live miles away. Never mind affordable housing, many say, the ban - which is also aimed at containing growth - could hurt business.

It's a parable of the persuasive power of the golden economy. And with other mountain resorts - from Jackson, Wyo., to Sun Valley, Idaho - grappling with the same issues, it hints at the difficulties that may lie ahead as local governments try to impose solutions on a skeptical populace.

According to a recent county study, residential construction here has grown at the blistering pace of 7 percent annually since 1990. The same study found that 10 workers are needed to construct every large home here; and once built, another four to five workers are needed to maintain it - from gardeners to pool cleaners.

"There's no place for them to live," says Mick Ireland, Pitkin County commissioner. In fact, 65 percent of local employees can't afford to live here. Some commute as far as 100 miles daily - meaning more traffic and higher maintenance costs on county roads.

Construction workers alone account for some 2,000 daily trips into Aspen. On highway 82, pickup trucks routinely jockey for space between Range Rovers and Ford Expeditions.

It's the county, not homebuilders, that bears the cost of growth, Mr. Ireland says. "Just because people from all over the world want a home here, it doesn't mean I have to pay for it."

But on the town's tree-lined streets, amid Fendi and Chanel boutiques, locals are grumbling about the heavy-handedness of county officials - and worrying about a downturn in the local economy.

"The more we get government out of our hair, the better," says Barry Gordon, owner of The Aspen Collection, which sells European antiques. "If rich people want to build so-called 'monster-homes,' then let them. I don't see letting government control the marketplace."

Aspen resident Steve Hansen, who owns Hansen Construction and employs a workforce of 70, says he worries about the ripple effect on local businesses and workers. "It's already affecting people," he says. "And it's affecting working-class people."

County officials counter that the ban is temporary - a "time-out" that will cease in six months, once new growth regulations are in place. But that prospect isn't exactly heartening either, says Mr. Hansen. "What the measures will be, no one knows. It could be worse."

At the very least, the county will impose impact fees for residential development - including remodeling - to help pay for construction of affordable housing. Zoning changes are also likely.

Along with Boulder, Colo., Aspen has stood for the past 30 years as a model for growth management. And while affordable housing in Aspen may sound like an oxymoron, the community already has an aggressive program in place. Yet recently, when 16 new units became available, more than 500 locals applied.

This approach makes economic sense, says Charles Goeldner, a University of Colorado business professor who teaches tourism management. "All the ski areas have struggled with this," he says. "We do have to think about 'carrying capacity' - through good planning and growth limits - to maintain quality of life."

But to Donald Morrison, a carpenter who commutes 50 miles to Aspen from New Castle, Colo., the ban is nothing but bad news. "There's all sorts of reasons they say we need this," he says. "But I don't see any good in it. Those big homes supply a lot of jobs."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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