Rural monster homes may not fly

  ASPEN, Colo. - To 72-year-old Betty LaMont, her 40-acre piece of land in remote Pitkin County, Colo., is her bank account.


The land LaMont's family homesteaded in the late 1880s lies at 8,000 feet in a grove of aspen, three miles from Thomasville, population 25, and 50 miles from the county seat, Aspen.


LaMont says she doesn't intend to erect a monster dwelling or sell it, but liked knowing that she could if she needed to.


Pitkin County wants to rezone La-Mont's land, and LaMont claims that will drop its value from $350,000 to as little as $40,000.


The new rural-remote zoning category Pitkin County is considering would include 145 of the county's more remote land holdings: 48,000 acres, ranging from five- to 400-acre parcels.


Current state and county regulations pretty much guarantee a landowner's right to build a home of up to 15,000 square feet on 35 acres; as the county's proposal is shaping up, it would prohibit building anything larger than an 800-square-foot cabin in the remote areas.


Additional restrictions would include no extension of utilities, no cutting of firewood, no individual wells, no road upgrades, and no traditional septic systems.


It's no secret that Pitkin County is home to many "monster" homes, including one 50,000-square-foot behemoth and several others over 20,000 square feet (HCN, 9/5/94). But the new legislation responds most directly to large homes proposed for the remote side of Aspen Mountain.


County commissioners said the development would be difficult to reach for emergency fire and medical crews, damage the delicate high-alpine environment and encourage the proliferation of expensive and unnecessary utility services. So they found a way to turn down the application, trading out development rights to other landowners on the valley floor and rezoning the back of the mountain as rural-remote.


Now the county is trying to protect the character of the remaining rural and remote portions of the county - lands which over the past four years have more than doubled in value because of demand and real estate speculation.


"Colorado is exploding in growth, and I think we need to take immediate action to preserve the lands," says Pitkin County Commissioner Wayne Ethridge. "(Aspen Mountain) woke everyone up to the dangers of how quickly the backcountry can develop. It is inappropriate to build starter castles in the middle of the wilderness, and many more of these are in the starter process."


Land-use battles are nothing new to Pitkin County, which in the past decade has passed the state's most stringent codes to protect wildlife corridors, and to prevent structures from being built in hazard zones or anywhere near a ridge line.


The rural-remote category, however, is turning into one of its biggest battles.


Many of the affected landowners have banded together to oppose the change as an illegal "taking" of their land without just compensation - even though the county is trying to work out the mechanics of transferring development rights from their parcels. One is Aspen attorney Dan Shipp, who has invited some of the county's top land-use lawyers into the battle. One is University of South Carolina law school professor Steve Spitz, who was involved in the 1992 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Lucas vs. South Carolina Coastal Commission. That case, says Shipp, sets a clear precedent for landowner rights.


"Spitz said the county would be liable for millions and millions of dollars in damages (if rural-remote zoning passed)," says Shipp. "It frankly appears the county is headed for disaster."


But Pitkin County Attorney John Ely says the county is standing on sound legal ground and is prepared to defend its actions. Besides, staking the county's coffers on ground-breaking legislation is nothing new, says Commissioner Ethridge.


"If Pitkin County allowed itself to be cowed by the threat of litigation, we'd look like the other counties in the state," he says. Rural-remote is currently still in its public comment phase, but Ethridge says the Pitkin commissioners will likely vote on it at their July 27 meeting. Many neighboring counties facing similar growth pressure are showing more than a casual interest in the outcome.


The battle has turned LaMont into an activist. "It affects people when you get into their pockets," she says. "It is unrealistic to expect a few property owners to have their financial security sacrificed and remain submissive and quiet."


* Rebecca Harwood





Rebecca Harwood reports for The Valley Journal in Carbondale, Colorado.