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,
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.
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
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
Additional restrictions would include no
extension of utilities, no cutting of firewood, no individual
wells, no road upgrades, and no traditional septic
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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.
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."
reports for The Valley Journal in Carbondale,