Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
ASPEN – John Miller, the owner of the meadow in Little Annie Basin where 27,000 square feet of structures were built for a wedding on June 14, said the affair was bigger than he thought it would be.
“The wedding was totally over the top from what I expected,” Miller said this week. “I didn’t know exactly how big the tent was.”
In addition to the main 12,800-square-foot tent, there were five other temporary structures erected on the site — a chapel structure, a cocktail tent and three catering tents to serve the expected 286 guests.
The structures were big enough to prompt Pitkin County — after the wedding — to pass an emergency ordinance banning any party tents over 1,000 square feet in the rural and remote zone without a commercial-level permit or an exemption from the county commissioners.
Miller has owned a large swath of land on the back of Aspen Mountain since the early 1980s.
“We’ve only had two events up there that have been over the top,” Miller said. “I have a long history back there and I’ve done a good job of preserving the land. I’m not trying to destroy the environment.”
Besides the June 14 wedding, Miller said there was a film shoot for a Dodge commercial in 2011 that unexpectedly brought 45 cars and trucks to the site.
Crews had until Saturday to dismantle the wedding structures. As of Monday, much of the area behind the main tent had been churned into open dirt by heavy truck and construction traffic. A $25,000 bond was required of the event planners for remediation efforts.
Miller’s property, with its sweeping vista of Mount Hayden and surrounding peaks, is the most popular spot in the county’s rural and remote zone district for film and production shoots, according to Pitkin County planner Mike Kraemer.
As such, Miller is no stranger to the county’s process for securing temporary commercial-use permits to allow for film or photo shoots to take place on his property. So how did things get out “over the top?”
Constructing a wedding
In April, Miller met with Kraemer and Kari Bien, a managing director and event planner with the New York based events-production company Van Wyck and Van Wyck, to discuss applying for a temporary commercial-use permit for the wedding on Miller’s property.
It was understood, Kraemer said, that it was a meeting for a commercial permit because Miller was receiving money to let the wedding be held on his land.
Van Wyck is known for its elaborate productions and blue-chip client list, and produced the wedding of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.
Miller and Bien did not know each other, Miller said, and she did not tell Miller who her client was at the “pre-application conference” with Kraemer.
Bien was representing the family of Alexandra Steel, who was planning to marry James Scott at the top of Little Annie Basin.
Steel, 31, volunteered at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) in the summer of 2004 and Scott, 37, once worked as teller at Alpine Bank in Aspen.
Alexandra Steel’s father is Robert K. Steel of Greenwich, Conn. He owns a $12.2 million home on Red Mountain, is the current chair of the Aspen Institute board of trustees, is the incoming CEO of the New York investment firm Perella Weinberg Partners, and is a former deputy mayor of New York for economic development, where he oversaw the city’s planning department.
Steel has three daughters, and Alex’s sister Elizabeth, works at Van Wyck in New York, which draws the connection between the wedding planner and the family a bit tighter.
After the pre-application conference with Miller and Bien, Kraemer took drawings of the proposed wedding project to a regular Monday meeting of the county’s planning staff for a review of the proposal.
The staff consensus that day — April 28 — was that project was too big, out of character with the underlying rural and remote zoning, and was happening too early in the year given the location and this past winter’s deep snowpack.
“We all agreed that it was not appropriate and if they did make an application, we would kick it up to the board of county commissioners,” said Cindy Houben, the county’s director of community development.
Houben’s responsible for deciding when an application goes from a staff-level review to the commissioners, which is a much more public process. It also can be difficult to quickly get on an agenda, and the commissioners are not pushovers when it comes to the rural and remote zone.
Not to mention that in this case, the staff was adamant that the proposal was out of line. Kraemer sent an email communicating the county staff’s position to the potential applicants.
Kraemer then heard from a local attorney representing Van Wyck, who sent him a copy of a letter from Miller to a “Mr. van Wyck,” presumably Bronson van Wyck, the founder of the events company that bears his name.
“OMG, I did not realize that Alex was the one getting married,” Miller wrote to van Wyck. “I first met Alex when she worked at ACES when we took our grandchildren there. She was great and we seemed to strike up a friendship right away.”
Miller said this week that he did know Alex as a friend at ACES, but he didn’t know her last name, or connect her to Robert and Gillian Steel. He said it was only after he got a check with Robert Steel’s name on it from Van Wyck and Van Wyck that he put together who the bride was.
“Robert and Gillian Steel are the salt of the earth,” Miller said. “And I’ve known Alex for a long time.”
In his letter to van Wyck, which was apparently faxed from his home on May 8, Miller said, “I would be honored to let Alex have her wedding on our property at no charge. I will keep the money that you have given me as a damage deposit, and will return it if the grounds are left in proper condition.”
With that, Miller also brushed aside the need for a temporary commercial-use permit from Pitkin County for the wedding. Only a relatively simple building permit was needed because it was a private event, and not a commercial one.
There would be no public presentation to the Pitkin County commissioners. No public discussion of, and no requirements for, construction and traffic management plans, community relations, road remediation, or other mitigation and regulations that frequently come with a commercial-use permit.
An aggrieved Randy Gold, who lives on Little Annie Road and has been enduring steady truck traffic since June 5, pointed out it may not have been a commercial deal between Steel and Miller, but the wedding production was certainly commercial in nature, and commercial to the many vendors and workers it has taken to erect, and deconstruct, the project.
On May 28, a building permit application was submitted by Classic Party Rentals for the 27,000-square-foot project. It said “Van Wyck/Aspen Wedding” on the plans.
The wedding structures still needed a building permit, but not a commercial-use permit, because any structure in Pitkin County over 200 square feet needs a building permit so the project can be screened for structural integrity and fire prevention measures.
The building permit was issued on June 4 for the June 14 wedding, and an intense effort to meet the deadline was suddenly underway in Little Annie Basin.
Steel’s representatives never applied for a temporary commercial-use permit from the county, and instead simply applied for a building permit to erect the structures on private land, which they were granted.
And there have been no violations of county regulations to date from the wedding project and the county never formally rejected an application.
So why the fuss, and the global news coverage?
At 27,000 square feet, including a cathedral that resembled Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas, the project’s scale shocked county planners who have been working for decades to protect Little Annie Basin, where permanent structures are now restricted to just 1,000 square feet.
“I told the wedding planner it was just insane,” Houben said.
She also told Bien that the plan to use the Aspen Mountain gondola to access the site probably wouldn’t work due to the condition of the road between the Sundeck and the top of Little Annie, which was wet with occasional deep snowdrifts.
And she reminded the planner that it was illegal to clear snow from roads in the rural and remote zone to improve access.
On the big day, guests were directed to the Little Nell Hotel and then transported in conference coaches to the site via a dry Little Annie Road.
By then, county planners already had drafted a land-use code amendment and set a date to bring it before the county’s planning and zoning commission on June 17 — three days after the wedding.
They wanted the loophole that the Steel wedding had exposed — no limits on party tents at private events in the rural and remote zone, and on John Miller’s property in particular, quickly closed.
Four days after the wedding the county commissioners approved a party-tent moratorium in the rural and remote zone. Outside of the zone, nothing has changed, and only a building permit is required for a large party tent.
Bronson van Wyck, Kari Bein and Robert Steel have not responded to requests for comment on the affair.
Houben was asked if she believed it was a “happy coincidence” that Miller suddenly realized he knew the Steel family, waived a fee and then prevented further review of the wedding project by the county.
“It doesn’t matter if it was a happy coincidence or a well-thought plan to avoid county regulations, it should not have happened in the rural and remote zone district,” Houben said.
The wedding structures were to be removed and the meadow restored by Saturday, according to the building permit. The trees, wood and other building materials used are to be donated locally.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborated on this story with the Aspen Daily News, which published a version of the story on Monday, June 23, 2014.