Aspen wedding gets no love from Pitkin County, residents
June 12, 2014
The Little Annie Basin, a pristine sub-alpine meadow on the backside of Aspen Mountain at 10,000 feet in elevation, will be the site of an extravagant wedding Saturday that has neighbors in the area outraged.
"What's happening right now is over-the-top concerning anything that's ever happened on the Little Annie Basin," said Glenn Horn, who spoke on behalf of the Little Annie Homeowners Association on Wednesday at the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners meeting. "The impacts will be felt with the vegetation and ground recovery. There's been no traffic control on the Little Annie Road, which is designated by the county as a primitive road. There was no notice to the neighbors about the impact of all the activity. There's no type of erosion control.
"Last week, one neighbor counted 50 huge trucks in one day accessing the road up to the basin."
The basin is located south of the summit of Aspen Mountain and can be accessed by a county road seven miles up Castle Creek Road. The basin was zoned rural and remote in the mid 1990s.
“They’re not doing anything illegal, but the intensity of this event is extraordinary. It’s quite the ordeal.”
Director, Pitkin County Community Development
The rural/remote zone district is intended to conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources, while allowing for limited recreational uses and limited residential development. It also was intended to preserve the small-scale, low-density backcountry character and lifestyle, retain undeveloped areas and allow for the transfer of development rights to areas that are more appropriate for development. The district accommodates only small new structures and very limited types of development.
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Rural and remote zoning was created to counter the accelerated and large-scale development pressures the county was experiencing in backcountry areas. The zoning acknowledged that the backcountry was different from the rest of the county in terms of character and in terms of county services that could or should be available.
According to Pitkin County Planner Mike Kraemer, on April 23 the county planning staff met with John Miller, the president of Castle Creek Investors Inc. and owner of the property on Little Annie Basin, as well as the wedding planner for Saturday's ceremony.
Miller was moving in the direction to secure a temporary commercial-use permit for the wedding. A temporary commercial-use permit allows for temporary commercial activity that wouldn't customarily comply with the rural and remote zoning districts.
"After the meeting, we informed Miller and the wedding planner that staff would not be supportive of a temporary commercial-use permit because of the scale and intensity of the operation," Kraemer said. "We then told them we would still take the application to the Board of County Commissioners for review and consideration."
On May 8, the county received a letter from Miller stating the event would be free of charge after he realized who was getting married.
"Miller told us he didn't realize who the bride (Alex Steel) was," Kraemer said. "Once he found out, he said he knew the bride and the wedding was free of charges. Because the event was now free, which constitutes no commercial activity, there was no need for a temporary commercial permit."
Steel is the daughter of Robert K. Steel, the chairman of the Aspen Institute.
For the wedding, a temporary chapel is being built, along with a 27,000-square-foot tent, scaffolding flooring, multiple service tents, a dance floor and several other temporary structures.
The site required hundreds of trips up Little Annie Road by service trucks and employee vehicles.
The wedding will have to be accessed by Little Annie Road, a county-owned public road. The original plan by the applicant was to have guests go up Aspen Mountain's Silver Queen Gondola and be driven down to the basin via Upper Midnight Mine Road. Because there's still too much snow on Upper Midnight Mine Road at that elevation and plowing isn't allowed in a rural and remote zoned area, guests will likely have to use Little Annie Road to access the wedding.
"This basin is adjacent to Forest Service land," Kraemer said. "That area is the next step into the backcountry."
Cindy Houben, director of the Pitkin County Community Development Department, said the wedding exposed a loophole in the rural and remote designation that needs to be addressed.
The county commissioners agreed Wednesday to meet on June 17 to discuss the adoption of an emergency ordinance for modification to the rural and remote zoning and special-permit standards.
"This is the first time we've had to deal with an event this large in a rural and remote zoned area," Houben said. "They're not doing anything illegal, but the intensity of this event is extraordinary. It's quite the ordeal."
Houben said that Pitkin County residents have honored the rural and remote zoning areas since the designation was adopted in 1994.
"There's a lot of concern regarding the recovery of the basin after this event," Houben said. "It's a sub-alpine environment. Recovery in that area could take years."
Randy Gold, who has lived on Little Annie Road for 28 years, said he is astounded at the amount of activity that's happened in the past week on Little Annie Basin.
"The impact of this wedding is more severe than the entire impact from the construction of the Sundeck restaurant," Gold said.
Pete Stouffer has lived on the Little Annie Basin side of Aspen Mountain for 25 years and said he can't believe anyone involved with the Aspen Institute would be a part of such a large-scale event in a rural and remote designated area.
"I think that someone that's had the opportunity to see the beauty, the character and will of our community and still pull something like this off is incomprehensible to me," Stouffer said. "This person is not unaware, and they're still doing this. That's what bothers me as much as this event actually happening."
Stouffer said he was shocked that Miller was OK with developing the wedding site on the basin.
"It's a stab in the back for all of us up there, completely," Stouffer said. "John (Miller) knows how we all feel. He's sold property to a lot of the residents up there. He knows people's desire to protect that area. We all support the rural and remote designations and work within the limitations of that. For John Miller to throw this into a loophole and flaunt this, he's stabbed every resident in the back. I'm really disappointed with him."
Miller was reached Wednesday but wouldn't comment on the wedding. A call to Steel on Wednesday wasn't returned.
Commissioner George Newman compared the current use of the basin to that of someone who didn't take the time to understand how the local population would feel about such a pristine area being used without considering the environmental impact such a large event will have.
"I'm really upset about this," Newman said. "It brings to mind the concept of the ugly American. It's unfortunate people come to our county because of the beauty and bring their values with them while not caring or not understanding our values. It shows you can be an ugly American in our own country."
Commissioner Rachel Richards agreed with Newman and couldn't hide her disappointment with the way the event is unfolding.
"It's so far from being neighborly that I can't understand it," she said.