Miller challenges county on party-tent moratorium

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Meadow with sign
The site of a June 14 wedding on John Miller's property in the Little Annie Basin. He told Pitkin County Commissioners the site would be restored to perfect conditions.

Brent Gardner-Smith / Aspen Journalism

The site of a June 14 wedding on John Miller's property in the Little Annie Basin. He told Pitkin County Commissioners the site would be restored to perfect conditions.

The Pitkin County commissioners spent more time Wednesday on what has become a hot topic for the board this summer — regulating private special events — although perhaps not in the manner they may have expected.

The board was poised to have a “confirmatory reading” and a public hearing on an emergency ordinance it passed on June 19, putting into place a nine-month moratorium on party tents over 1,000 square feet in the “rural and remote” zone.

But due to an administrative error, the emergency ordinance hearing was left off of the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting that was posted on the county’s website, and so the board postponed the hearing on the moratorium until July 23.

The postponement was announced just before the public comment portion of the meeting, when citizens are typically given three minutes to speak their mind.

And John Miller, the controlling owner of Castle Creek Investors, Inc., (CCI) stood up to do just that.

Miller owns the land where the wedding of Alexandra Steel, the daughter of Aspen Institute Chairman Robert Steel, was held on June 14, which sparked the county’s moratorium.

The Steel wedding plans included erecting 27,000 square feet of temporary structures — for large tents and a wedding chapel — in a meadow at the top of Little Annie Basin on the backside of Aspen Mountain. After the wedding, a large area of compacted and bare dirt was left behind requiring restoration.

Miller and a wedding planner had originally approached the county seeking a temporary commercial use permit for the event. But after county planners said they would refer the permit application to the county commissioners for review because of the scope of the structures and the timing of the event, Miller told the officials that he had just learned who the bride was. It turns out he knows both her and her parents, and that he was therefore no longer going to receive compensation for renting his land for the event.

And with that, Miller only needed a building permit for the temporary structures, and not a commercial use permit. The event went ahead to the dismay of county officials who responded with an emergency ordinance banning large party tents in the rural and remote zone, which encompasses Miller’s property.

On Wednesday, Miller told all five county commissioners that he first came to Aspen in 1951. In 1982, he and other investors in CCI bought 880 acres of private land on the back of Aspen Mountain out of bankruptcy. The land had been assembled in the 1970s as part of the failed effort to start the ski area in the Little Annie Basin and on the east side of Richmond Ridge.

“I’ve been a good custodian of that property for the full length of time,” Miller said, adding that he had “been violated many, many times by both the public and the county.”

Miller cited a number of instances in his dealings with the county that he characterized as verging on “extortion” and “blackmail,” including the downzoning that came with rural and remote, and agreements he made with the county regarding Little Annie Road and the sale of several mining claims.

In regards to the wedding, Miller said, “I would rank that as one of two events in the 32 years that I’ve controlled that property that were over the top. It was much larger than I thought it was going to be.”

Miller said the other “over-the-top” event was a Dodge commercial shot by Klaus Obermeyer, Jr. in the fall of 2011. He said that event also disturbed some ground in the meadow, which was plowed and re-seeded and then came back in “perfect” condition in the spring.

Miller added that more ground was disturbed for the wedding.

“We had several neighbors up there that were offended and I really, really regret that, because we have a good neighborhood back there,” Miller said. “And I cherish their friendship and we’ve had very, very little trouble from the people that actually live back there, with maybe the exception of one or two that wanted to be contrarian.”

Miller then said that Robert Steel and his wife Gillian “are really lovely, lovely people” and that Robert Steel, who is a Goldman Sachs alumni and the new CEO of Perella Weinberg Partners in New York, “wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

“They both advanced to make quite something out of themselves and they deserve the consideration of the whole community,” Miller continued.

Then Miller launched into a litany of complaints about his prior dealings with Pitkin County.

At that point, Rob Ittner, the current chair of the board of county commissioners, encouraged Miller to focus his comments, offered him four more minutes to speak, and added he would be happy to meet with Miller along with Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock in order to fully understand his concerns.

“These are other issues that are related but are done deals, way back,” Ittner told Miller. “Understand, I want to hear it all, but I don’t want to take a half-an-hour today to do it.”

“I don’t get much sympathy talking to the county,” Miller replied.

He said the county claimed it controlled Little Annie Road and had widened it beyond a 14-foot limit, and he wanted the road restored.

He said he came to the county two years ago and found he couldn’t qualify for a 1,000-square-foot rural and remote cabin, despite his extensive land holdings. (Miller applied twice to the county, and was successful on his second try, according to county officials).

And he said the county demanded half of the proceeds from the sale of three mining claims, even though it didn’t own more than 25 percent of any of them.

“I have been abused more than the county has been abused,” Miller said, before urging officials to “table” their emergency ordinance regarding the moratorium on party tents in the rural and remote zone.

“I have property rights,” Miller told the commissioners. “And I fought two years in the army to preserve the rights for you and all of you. And I’m going to demand my property rights. And if you take ’em away from me, we may have to talk about it, pretty firmly.”

The other commissioners did not respond to Miller’s comments.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of Pitkin County and land and water issues. The Daily News published a version of the story on Thursday, July 10, 2014.

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