ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen long has been favored by the world’s 1 percenters, the economic elite. This includes both liberals and conservatives, but especially the latter.
Two of the four Koch brothers, of fossil fuel fame, now or in the past have owned places in or around Aspen.
So did a Saudi prince, Bandar bin Sultan, who had a 56,000-square-foot house that he sold in 2012. The buyer, hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, was one of Trump’s campaign advisors in 2016. And it should be noted that the $24.5 million he paid for the sprawling Aspen digs comes in only second on his real estate list. He paid $41 million for a place in Southampton, New York.
This castle is outside of Aspen proper, like other big homes. But even some lesser McMansions come in at 15,000 square feet. That’s the same size as the Pitkin County Courthouse, pointed out Tony Vagneur, writing in The Aspen Times.
“If you’ve ever wandered through one of those big, bad boys, it’s reminiscent of wandering through an oversized mausoleum or an outdated, empty hotel,” he wrote. “Aloneness is a word that comes to mind, especially when they’re unoccupied so often. It’s hard to make a 15,000-square-foot house ring true to the meaning of ‘house,’ no matter what kind of art you hang on the wall.”
Now, the maximum size allowed in Pitkin County is 5,750 square feet. However, by buying land elsewhere in the county and transferring the development rights from it, homes of 10,000 to 13,000 square feet remain possible.
Pitkin County officials — but not those in Aspen — have been talking for the last year about further limiting house sizes. Real estate agents, developers and architects in the Aspen area want to allow more larger homes. They have resisted any restrictions. Pitkin County officials will take up the matter again in late August.
Energy use of the supersized homes figures into the debate. A 10,000-square-foot home doesn’t use 10 times more energy than a 1,000-square-foot home, a study found, but instead 30 times more energy. A house’s energy appetite escalates disproportionately beginning at 7,000 square feet.
Paul Andersen, writing in The Aspen Times, said that if the Aspen community “hopes to seriously confront climate change, it has to address the impacts of empty vacation homes, which cover ridgelines and mesas as a testament to the privilege of wealth.”
Why hasn’t the community crimped house sizes in line with their climate impacts?
Because, wrote Andersen, the topic remains “taboo in Aspen and Pitkin County, where an inconvenient truth is mostly unspoken: Extravagant vacation homes contribute significantly to the pending crises of climate change.”
He pointed to Vancouver as a potential model. There, he reported, the city charges a 1% tax based on assessed value. That caused the number of vacation homes to decline 15% in 2018 and produced $33 million in new revenue earmarked for affordable housing.
Pitkin County likely won’t use the Vancouver model, Andersen predicted, because Aspen has an unhealthy co-dependency with its super-wealthy part-time residents.
“Burdening the wealthy here has become a stigma because wealth in Aspen equates to culture and richness and upscale community amenities,” he wrote. “To penalize wealth in any way is to bite the hand that feeds.”
Allen Best compiles Mountain Town News, an Arvada, Colorado-based e-magazine that provides analysis of economic, environmental and social trends in resort-based mountain valleys of the West.