ASPEN, COLO. — Aspen, Colo., is a place of spectacular scenery - the striped peaks of the nearby Maroon Bells have become a nature- calendar cliché - and spectacular wealth. On weekends "in season," private jets descend upon the Aspen airport like flies on honey, and movie stars and multimillionaires are a dime a dozen on Aspen's world-class ski slopes.
But, as locals like to point out, there's more to this historic Western town than its "Glitter Gulch" reputation. Pitkin County, which includes Aspen, also has a social conscience - and is now using it to convert the exceptional luxuries enjoyed by part-time residents into a one-of-a-kind stand against global warming.
As a winter playground for the jet set, Aspen is dotted with lavish vacation homes, which include energy-guzzling amenities such as heated driveways and outdoor heated pools (no mean feat at an elevation of 8,000 feet).
To counter this, the city and county revised their shared building codes in 2000 to give owners of new homes a choice: They can install renewable-energy features like solar panels or they can pay a mitigation fee of up to $100,000. The fee, based on how much carbon dioxide the home's energy-gobbling amenities will generate, works out to $340 per ton of CO2 - the world's stiffest tax on carbon emissions.
In snowier parts of the country, heated driveways are not unheard of. But they're usually reserved for places like hospital emergency-room entrances. Around Aspen, snow-melting driveways are common features on the high-end houses that dot the sides of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Standing on the cobblestone-inlaid, heated driveway of a $15 million vacation home that his company built, real-estate developer Robert Trowne explains, "If you live in an area like this that gets the volume of snow we do, it's the ultimate luxury, really, to not have to deal with it."
Local activist Randy Udall, a member of the famous political family, provided the spark that got Aspen residents to pay attention to energy issues. He explains, "We're quite concerned now in our valley about the rapid increase in global climate changes. We've just had the warmest winter in 120 years, and our economy is based on skiing."
Mr. Udall's tiny nonprofit group, the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, administers grants from the proceeds of the tax. In fewer than three years, it has funded $800,000 in energy-saving projects, helping turn this tony resort town into a hotbed of green-energy development. The projects range from solar water heaters on the roof of a low-income housing project to efficient-lighting retrofits for the Aspen Ski Company's parking garage.
Mr. Trowne says it's unfair to single out a small number of wealthy homeowners. Yet few of the vacation homeowners themselves have complained, partly because, as part-time residents, they can't vote locally. It also seems that $50,000 fees barely register on the radar screens of those who can afford heating bills that dwarf most Americans' mortgage payments.
Architect Olivia Emery, who designs multimillion-dollar houses in the Aspen area, reports that many of her clients have never thought about energy use. "I've had clients who are mystified by why we have an energy code to begin with," she says.
While Aspen's concentration of extreme wealth and overheated vacation homes may be unique, Udall says that energy codes nationwide will eventually resemble Aspen's. "I'm fairly convinced that it will be quite common for energy codes in the next 20 years to require houses to produce some of their own energy. Buildings are going to have to be something other than parasites on the landscape," he predicts. "They're going to have to do something useful - produce hot water, produce electricity, harvest rainwater. They can't be on intensive care for the next century."