I broke a rule. I was covering a government meeting as a reporter and I spoke during the public comment period. I became part of the story I was reporting and I did it voluntarily – not because I was swept up in it, as, say, a war correspondent could be taken hostage.
I am now a walking, talking conflict-of-interest, torn between my responsibilities as a journalist and my daily existence as a resident and business owner in Telluride. (Which, come to think of it, makes me sort of a hostage after all, but I digress….)
My wife, Watch co-publisher Marta Tarbell, was not happy; my editor Gus Jarvis was not happy. Some of the people who were at the meeting and don’t share my viewpoint – and who are neighbors and personal friends – were not happy. Having exhibited a lack of discipline, even I am not happy.
And for what did I cause this unhappiness? Why did I speak out? What I had to say had no effect and made absolutely no difference as to the outcome.
Telluride appears poised to make another stupid land use decision, despite my feeble protest. Yet again we will, in our collective (lack of) wisdom, very probably kill a hotel development and ensure that a key parcel of land will be built out in a way that is not just of no benefit to the community but is, in fact, detrimental to the community.
Ironically, the issue at the meeting was whether the town should “break zoning rules” to allow a development that, according to the developer, according to the town’s Master Plan, and according to what many people at the meeting repeatedly said they believe, would be great to have: a full service hotel downtown. Nonetheless, we must never break the rules is the argument that won the day, as the Telluride Planning & Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend to the Telluride Town Council that it deny a request for a General Waiver that would allow the proposed Hotel Ajax greater than the ordinarily permitted Floor Area Ratio. This, even though the General Waiver authority is a rule that allows developers to ask for permission to break the rules, under specified circumstances and only if town boards agree to it.
So we’d reached the nonsensical point – at the meeting I was covering – where the question was not whether a hotel on a large vacant lot on East Colorado Ave. is a good idea to be facilitated. Instead, the question was whether a zoning rule can ever be bent, or broken. Even when the rule in question is ill-advised or irrelevant and there’s a rule to deal with ill-advised or irrelevant rules.
This was the absurdity that drove me to break a fundamental rule taught in Journalism 101. The opponents of the Hotel Ajax told the officials considering the issue that they were opposed to the project as a matter of principle, because a General Waiver is wrong and rules are rules. But their real objection, clearly, as they themselves stated, was that they don’t want to live near a hotel because they fear the impacts of possible noise from a proposed rooftop bar and additional traffic near their homes, and what else they didn’t exactly say. The unknown, no doubt, is frightening.
Here is the predictable progression, having seen it unfold many times before:
- A hotel has been proposed and some nearby residents don’t like the idea – never mind that they chose to purchase homes adjacent to a commercial district in a tourist town. Near, in fact, a vacant lot zoned commercial that they knew would someday be built out.
- In order to be built for optimum success, the hotel developer seeks a General Waiver to a rule that by any reckoning serves no practical purpose on that lot. This is not immediately easy for the casual observer to comprehend which plays well for the opponents. (What the hell is Floor Area Ratio, anyway?)
- To defeat the hotel neighbors oppose the waiver to the FAR regulation, capitalizing on “rules are rules/waivers are wrong” sentiment.
- The developer gives up and decides to build “by right,” probably sooner rather than later.
- The structures built by right, which can’t be killed because the developer will stick rigidly to the rules so he can avoid another extended detour through the tortuous town approvals process for variances, will occupy the exact same footprint, cast the same shadows, and be virtually indistinguishable visually from the hotel, had it been built.
- Instead of a hotel the last big open lot on main street will be occupied by buildings comprised of high-end, rarely occupied condos on the upper stories and struggling retail on the ground floor. Because that’s what the zoning allows by right.
If this unfolds as scripted, will it be a credit to the neighbors? Will it make them happier in their homes? Will it be a credit to the town?
And this is what passes for enlightened governance and smart land use decisions in Telluride: A process that treats land use ordinances like gospel delivered unto us by Moses (excluding that nasty General Waiver thing that snuck in there somehow); a process that always extends extreme deference to opponents of any development project and casts automatic suspicion on variances, ignoring the fact that variances are a broadly used zoning tool that help communities incentivize developers to build what communities want; and by-right zoning that fails us repeatedly because God wasn’t entirely prescient after all when she handed down the tablets containing the sacrosanct Land Use Code.
Over the last thirty years this form of local governance has helped produce more and more high-end, dark condos in prime locations, fewer and fewer attractive visitor accommodations, fewer jobs to support locals, and less commerce to support retail businesses.
And it does this with stunning efficiently despite a general and widespread understanding that this is precisely what we don’t want. Or at least what we say we don’t want.
Watching this familiar scenario unfold by the book once again at a joint meeting of HARC and P&Z to review the Hotel Ajax, I got so frustrated that I broke a sacrosanct rule of journalism – which came to us on another tablet – and spoke up, a futile effort because government in Telluride often seems as dysfunctional and our rules as jerry-rigged against progress as in Washington D.C.
I’m sorry I did it. I should have stuck to just reporting it. If there’s anyone who knows that you shouldn’t break a rule in Telluride, it ought to be me after years of watching Telluride government close-up.
How did this purportedly progressive town, progressive at least in its own mind, end up so profoundly conservative in its actions? From an admirable instinct to protect what we love, our community, our environment, our town, we have devised rules that are destructive of those very values.