Ongoing talks about transforming 8 undeveloped acres into an employee housing community for Aspen’s public schools and hospital have generated enthusiastic reactions from employers, a note of caution from county zoning officials, and mixed signals of apprehension and cooperation from a billionaire couple who reside in the subdivision being eyed for the development.
The 50-acre subdivision’s other property owner, Dick Butera, who developed the original Aspen Club & Spa and once owned the Hotel Jerome, has been exploring the concept since spring. He said he first envisioned, in March, donating nearly one-third of his Castle Creek Road property to the Aspen School District to build 15 duplexes containing 30 units. At the beginning of October, he brought Aspen Valley Hospital into the discussions.
Privately, assertively and excitedly, the outspoken Butera has been spelling out his idea to planners, lawyers, developers and architects, as well as officials with the hospital, school and county. According to Butera, the land is an ideal location for the development of 15 4,000-square-foot duplexes, each with 2,000-square-foot residences where teachers, nurses, bus drivers and others with families could live comfortably, pay affordable rent and steer clear of the daily commutes that can stretch as long as 70 miles in each direction.
In simple terms, it would take a complicated approval process before ground could be broken. The property Butera would gift to the hospital and school district is outside of the city and county’s Urban Growth Boundary, where county policy discourages rezoning to accommodate employee housing projects, said Suzanne Wolff, Pitkin County’s director of community development.
“It’s zoned for residential,” Wolff said of the Castle Creek Valley area, “but for the most part, it is zoned for one unit per 10 acres, and the county’s housing policy speaks to more density within the Urban Growth Boundary, versus the more rural areas where it’s lesser density. The kind of density they’re talking about is not supported by the existing zoning out there.”
Under the county’s land-use code, “applications to rezone land outside the urban growth boundaries (and Redstone) to a zone district intended for use inside the urban growth boundaries will not be approved.”
The Castle Creek Master Plan, which applies to the area in question, also prohibits “further rezoning of lands within the Caucus Area to AH (affordable housing) or AH-PUD.”
“Any such rezoning would be required to demonstrate that the proposed location is consistent with the character of the surrounding area and complies with the other policies and implementation measures contained in this Master Plan,” according to the document.
Wolff talked about the proposal with Butera and Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh last month. She said it was much too early to weigh in on the proposal’s potential, but she noted the challenges it would face.
“The conversation I had with them was pretty informal, and there’s no application in front of us,” she said.
Butera, who built his career as a developer, knows the challenges ahead but is confident it can be done. If Butera gifts the property to the school and hospital, they would become the site’s new owner. And if state legislation regarding school districts and eminent domain came into play, that would add another layer to the matter.
“Properties owned by the school district have different regulations under state statute,” she said. “Then there’s a different conversation. For me, the property is outside of the Urban Growth Boundary, and our policies and zoning that would accommodate more dense affordable housing-type development couldn’t happen outside of the Urban Growth Boundary.”
According to the Colorado Revised Statutes, “A school district has the power to take by eminent domain so much real property as the board of education of the district may deem necessary for any school purpose authorized by law, but the power of eminent domain shall not be exercised to acquire any real property located outside the territorial limits of the school district.”
Lay of the land
Butera’s sense of urgency to get things moving has been tempered by the reaction from his neighbors: Chicago billionaire couple Penny Pritzker and Bryan Traubert. A few days after Butera and his son, Miles, described their plan to the couple at their Castle Creek Road home on July 8, he was informed about the dim prospects of getting buy-in from Pritzker and Traubert.
“Mr. Butera’s effort to assist in creating affordable housing for the teachers in the Aspen School District is commendable,” said a July email from the couple’s lawyer Kevin Poorman, who lives in Chicago. The email was sent to Butera’s lawyer. Butera provided a photocopy of the email to Aspen Journalism. “But, this is not the right location for this development. After having considered and examined the situation carefully, my clients will not approve of, or consent to, the development or subdivision of Mr. Butera’s property for the use or in the manner he proposed.”
Despite Poorman’s July email and Butera’s framing of the matter, Traubert said he and his wife are amenable to Butera’s proposal when asked if he and Pritzker were opposed to using the land for teacher housing.
“Absolutely not,” Traubert said in an emailed response, dated Oct. 3, to questions from Aspen Journalism. “We are very much in favor of the development of affordable housing for the Aspen School District for its employees and teachers. We are also keenly aware that Aspen has both a teacher shortage and a significant affordable housing crisis, and the school district is challenged to hire and retain educators where the cost of living is among the highest in the United States.”
Butera’s property, which he and his son own through a trust, comprises roughly one-half of the acreage in a subdivision called the Castle Creek Banks Partnership, which is located about a mile up the Castle Creek Valley from the campus shared by Aspen Country Day and the Aspen Music Festival and School, and roughly 3 miles up from the Highway 82 roundabout.
Under the subdivision’s covenants, Butera’s proposal would require consent from all of the subdivision’s property owners; Pritzker and Trauber own the subdivision’s only other lot.
Butera would need to legally subdivide his 30-acre parcel, Lot 1, which is bisected by Castle Creek Road. Butera’s house and caretaker home, not far from the city of Aspen’s Castle Creek water diversion structure, sit on 22 acres of land on the eastern side of the road. On the road’s western side are 8.17 acres of undisturbed land — accessible by North Hayden Road — that Butera wants to donate to the school and hospital districts to be used for rental residences of up to 30 households.
The land is zoned AR-10 (agricultural/residential), and to build worker housing there, the western side would need to be rezoned to AH-PUD (affordable housing planned unit development) under Pitkin County regulations, as well as subdivided, according to an appraisal report for 2400 Castle Creek Road, which is the physical address for the entire property.
Another hurdle would be to remove the private open space easement that cuts through the land Butera wants to donate.
The appraisal report, dated June 27, was prepared by National Valuation Consultants, which is based in Centennial. Butera hired the firm in the spring to perform an appraisal of the 8 acres he would give to the school district and hospital. The firm based the property’s value in part on the assumption that it would be rezoned for employee housing and clear all of the other hurdles present. The figure came out to $16 million.
The other part of the Castle Creek Banks subdivision, Lot 2, is owned by Pritzker and Traubert through a limited liability company called PT Ranch Barn. Their 12,599-square-foot home, completed in 2012 and featuring six bedrooms and seven baths, sits on 23.76 acres. The home is on the opposite side of Castle Creek Road, where the employee housing would be built.
Pritzker and Traubert own two other Castle Creek Road properties through LLCs, according to property records. Those properties are not part of the subdivision but are located in close proximity to the main home.
Pritzker is a member of the wealthy Chicago family that made a fortune in the hotel industry with the Hyatt chain and wields political influence on both the national and global stage.
President Joe Biden appointed her in September as the U.S. special representative for the economic recovery of war-torn Ukraine, and she was Commerce Department secretary under President Barack Obama. Her brother, J.B., is the governor of Illinois. Her family’s net worth of $32.5 billion was good enough for a No. 9 ranking on the Forbes list of richest American families in December 2020.
Traubert is a retired ophthalmologist and chair of the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, which he and his wife launched in 2000. “Since the foundation’s inception in 2000, we have worked to improve public education, increase fitness and health opportunities, and invest in civic institutions throughout Chicago,” according to the organization’s website.
The Aspen School District — which has approximately 260 employees, 98% of whom work full time — owns 102 residential units rented by its staff and faculty, and five units that it sublets from outside ownership, according to Baugh and the district. In contrast to other school districts in mountain towns, Aspen’s has a high inventory of employee housing, but it’s still not enough, according to Baugh.
“We’re no different from anyone else in our valley looking for quality employees,” he said, “and it’s the first question asked on every single application whether it’s a mechanic, a teacher, a bus driver or a school principal.”
The 2023 Colorado State of Education report, compiled through a survey of 1,600 of the Colorado Education Association’s 39,000 members, said faculty and staff have been riddled by burnout, the politicization of schools and mental health impacts.
“None of the problems addressed here are new: Educator pay is still too low, their workload is overwhelming, and educators still feel unsafe and disrespected in their schools. But these long-standing systemic issues have been compounded and exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 on all of our communities,” Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, wrote in an introduction to the report.
Aspen Valley Hospital’s hiring challenges also reflect the national trend that, as was the case in the education field, was an extension of the pandemic.
The hospital as of Oct. 5 had 393 full-time employees and 32 half-time employees, according to AVH officials. As of Oct. 4, the hospital had 42 job openings posted on its website — 35 of which were in clinical positions and 21 of which were advertised as full-time.
AVH leases 51 of the 66 units it owns to its employees — 13 at the Beaumont Lodge, 18 at Castle Creek Meadows across from the hospital, 14 at Mountain Oaks, one residence for the CEO and two in Basalt, according to hospital officials. The hospital also counts another three units at Mountain Oaks, functioning as temporary “call rooms,” as part of its leasable inventory.
The hospital’s strategic plan is to increase its leasable inventory to 256 units over the next 10 years.
Another 15 “call rooms” are part of the AVH housing inventory; those units are used by staff who are on call but live too far from the hospital to respond quickly when needed.
“Call rooms have been an interesting development. We’ve always had them, but what it’s allowing us to do is widen the radius of where we can draw our talent from,” Tom McCauley, chief human resources officer, told the hospital’s board of directors at its most recent monthly meeting, held Oct. 9. “For example, we might have a nurse who lives in Grand Junction and he or she could drive here, work three twelves (12-hour shifts), stay in our call room for two nights and go back home. And they like that, too, because they can maintain their home base. But we don’t have to supply permit housing for that, and the day they leave, we turn it over and get it ready for somebody else.”
Butera hasn’t been a fan of all affordable housing project proposals, and he is a fierce critic of the density proposed at the city of Aspen’s Lumberyard project, as well as the 24 units built through a public-private partnership involving the city on lower Castle Creek Road near the hospital.
The duplexes he wants to see built would set Aspen apart from other towns with the same challenges, he said. His vision, however, butts against the tight restrictions over land use.
“Residential development is located on lots generally ranging in size from two to 40 acres, though larger acreages exist. Most of the subdivided land cannot be further subdivided due to zoning or restrictive covenants,” said the “existing conditions report” attached to the updated 2023 master plan for the Castle Creek Caucus.
Open to talks
The Castle Creek Banks Partnership is one of 10 subdivisions within the caucus boundaries; Pitkin County commissioners in 1991 adopted a resolution that approved the application for the creation of the Castle Creek Banks Partnership Lot Split. Final plan approval for the 50% density reduction lot split was granted in 1993.
The lot-split approvals predated Butera’s entrance into the Castle Creek Valley from his home near the Aspen Club.
Butera bought the subdivision’s Lot 1 for $4.7 million in 2000 and built a 6,493-square-foot home and a 749-square-foot caretaker unit in 2002; the Pritzker-Trauber couple bought their near 24-acre lot for $5.35 million in 2006, according to property records.
The print gets finer in the commissioners’ resolution, which restricts future development beyond what was approved.
“The applicant shall deed restrict Lots 1 and 2 against further development and/or subdivision,” said the resolution. “Development is defined, pursuant to … the Land Use Code, as any construction or activity which changes the basic character or the use of the land on which the construction or activity occurs.”
Another document — called the “subdivision improvements agreement” — that is part of the subdivision’s covenants states, “No further subdivision of or development on either of the lots … shall be permitted.”
Poorman cited the agreement in his July email to Butera’s lawyer, stating the owners “will not provide the necessary consents or approvals under the SIA or otherwise to allow the development Mr. Butera has described.”
Poorman’s letter both puzzled and infuriated Butera.
“Their property is 1,500 feet from the front edge of my proposed development. They can’t see it; there’s a bend in Castle Creek Road, and you can’t see it,” Butera said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not a visual issue for them and it’s not a traffic issue for them.”
In Butera’s mind, the crisis of housing public educators and nurses should take priority over land-use restrictions and covenants. The Castle Creek Valley is dotted with massive homes on large tracts of land, where the collective value of residential property on its namesake road approaches a half-billion dollars.
Baugh said he thinks a compromise or deal can be reached.
“I’d love to talk to Mrs. Pritzker,” he said. “We don’t believe it would impact her negatively at all. We know it’s a lovely wooded drive, and 15 [duplexes] out there, we don’t see them as a high impact to the neighborhood, and it seems a very desirable place for Aspen School District employees to live.”
Traubert’s email to Aspen Journalism said they were open to talks.
“What we request is that we be allowed to participate in the process to ensure the project is both safe and does no unreasonable harm to the environment and that our rights and responsibilities be respected as well,” the email said.
Traubert said the couple couldn’t give “blind approval” to Butera’s idea after their meeting in July and without seeing any professional plans for them to review.
“Look, this property sits on a very busy and active road that is used by pedestrians, bikers and hikers alike,” Traubert’s email said. “We have seen too many close calls and want to ensure the safety of people using this road. Again, all we requested is the ability to look at and comment on the plans in order to understand the impacts on the area by the proposed development. We believe this is a reasonable request and our responsibility as homeowners, neighbors and stewards for future generations to enjoy this beautiful valley. Make no mistake, we have been in essence asked to give blind approval to a project which has only been described to us in the barest of terms.”
Farther upvalley on Castle Creek Road are popular destinations such as the ghost town of Ashcroft, the Pine Creek Cookhouse, cross-country skiing trails, and trailheads for hikes to American and Cathedral lakes.
Similar concerns about traffic were expressed in the caucus report.
“Complaints regarding roads in the caucus area generally consist of problems with rock fall, the need for wider shoulders and passing lanes, and conflicts with bicycle traffic,” said the report. “There is a significant amount of bicycle traffic on both Maroon and Castle Creek Roads. Due to the narrow, winding nature of the rural roads, there is a substantial risk for auto/bicycle conflicts.”
Butera said he has met with local land-use planner Mike Kraemer to discuss the concept. Baugh said Oct. 11 that more land-use professionals were being drawn into the conversation.
During an interview in September, Butera recalled when the idea came to him in the middle of a March night while he was staying in Mexico. In the past, he has given $10,000 awards to Aspen School District employees. An educational system belongs at the core of any community, he said.
“When you’re relaxed and you’re happy and you’re exercising and you’re eating well, your brain has the ability to do amazing things,” he said. “So I had this thought and I go, ‘Eight acres? Eight acres? We could put school teachers on the land.’”
This story was produced in collaboration with Aspen Daily News, where Rick Carroll is managing editor. Pitkin County’s Healthy Community Fund supports Aspen Journalism, which is solely responsible for its editorial content.