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Developer of West End luxury homes suing city of Aspen over $755k in housing fees

This piece of West End property, located at 426 N. Eighth St., is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by an Aspen law firm on behalf of local hotel developer and operator Michael Brown. (Rick Carroll/The Aspen Times)

A piece of West End property is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by an Aspen law firm on behalf of a local hotel developer and operator.

Public records link hotelier Michael Brown to a limited liability corporation the firm Garfield & Hecht created before suing the city and Aspen City Council over employee-housing mitigation fees totaling $755,278.

While the city miscalculated the fees, the suit alleged, Brown’s LLC satisfied the amount Jan. 25 in order to obtain a permit to build a single-family residence on 426 N. Eighth St.

The plaintiff is called DR 24F16, which is the LLC that Garfield & Hecht formed Feb. 3, according to the Secretary of State’s office. DR 24F16 LLC represents Forest Lookout II LLC, the corporate identity for the ownership behind the property.

And it is Brown who controls Forest Lookout II, based on documents at the Pitkin County Clerk & Recorder’s Office. Brown also is the co-founder of HayMax Capital, which owns Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson and is the developer of the unbuilt Lift One Lodge at the base of Aspen Mountain. Haymax also owns two hotels in Idaho and develops luxury residential properties, including the one the lawsuit cited.

Brown did not respond to messages this week seeking comment, nor did David Lenyo, the Garfield & Hecht attorney who filed the suit during non-business hours Sunday in the U.S. District Court of Denver.

City Attorney Jim True held off commenting about the suit Thursday.

“Although we have been contacted by the attorney for the plaintiff, we have not been formally served with the complaint,” True said in an email. “Presently, we are reviewing the complaint … but are not in a position to comment at this time.”

While both sides were mum, the lawsuit spells out Brown’s beef with the city over a piece of undeveloped land the U.S. Forest Service had owned since 1940 before auctioning off its five parcels in 2013.

Five years after the auction, Brown’s LLC paid the newest owner $2.5 million for the empty lot at 426 N. Eighth St. — one of five parcels comprising the Ranger Station Subdivision — in August 2018.

With an eye toward developing property, Brown’s LLC submitted building plans with the city in December 2019 and received its building permit last month.

While the municipal land-use code requires developers of single-family homes and duplex units to mitigate for employee housing, the city violated Brown’s LLC’s constitutional rights by charging it a cash-in-lieu fee five times more than what a developer would be charged to build a single-family home on a lot with existing improvements, the suit said.

“The city of Aspen has no rational basis to treat development of a single family residence on a vacant lot and the development of a single family residence on a lot with existing development differently when calculating FTEs (full-time employees), which in turn impacts the cash-in-lieu affordable housing mitigation rate,” the suit said.

The plaintiff is entitled to a refund, the suit argued, because the fee constituted what’s called a “taking” — which is when government seizes a private property or deprives its owner of certain rights without compensation.

By doing so, the city violated the Fifth Amendment, the suit argues.

“The city of Aspen should refund to plaintiff the amount of the affordable mitigation fee wrongfully imposed and collected with interest thereon from the date collected,” the suit said.

Additionally, the complaint alleged the city violated the 14th Amendment by not providing the plaintiff with due process before setting the fee.

“The city of Aspen’s imposition of the improperly calculated affordable housing mitigation fee is arbitrary, capricious and irrational under applicable due process standards, and the imposition of the fee bears no rational relation to the reasonable amount to defray impacts directly related to the proposed development of a single family residence on Lot 4,” the suit said.

Lot 4 is the property located at 426 N. Eighth St.

Construction has yet to start on the residential project that will include a single-family home and a detached duplex. Another Brown-controlled LLC owns the lot next door, 412 N. Eighth St. It also is undeveloped at this time.

“HayMax purchased two lots and completed entitlement work that allowed for a single family home and detached duplex homes to be built. Each home will be built to the highest luxury standard and take advantage of surrounding mountain views. One residence has been sold,” according to HayMax marketing material.


Pitkin County traveler affidavits set for an overhaul

Pitkin County leaders aren’t quite ready to swear off the traveler-affidavit program, but they expressed a willingness Tuesday to make it less restrictive and more hospitable to visitors.

Responding to Aspen business leaders’ concerns that the affidavit requirement keeps driving away potential visitors and will continue hurting the tourism trade, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock told commissioners he and staff will recommend to the board of health at its Thursday meeting to consider a revamp of the program.

“It would be a change or modification of the travel affidavit to make testing optional,” Peacock said.

Peacock is proposing the county no longer require travelers 10 and older to submit an online affidavit acknowledging they haven’t had symptoms for 10 days and have either been fully vaccinated or have received a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of arriving in Pitkin County. The program also requires visitors to quarantine for 10 days if they are not tested before arrival.

Under Peacock’s suggestion, the revised program would align with travel suggestions — not requirements — from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that eligible people get fully vaccinated and wait two weeks before they travel, and others get tested one to three days before traveling and bring along their test results. The CDC also says no traveling for people who test positive.

Pitkin County introduced the program, which applies to travelers spending at least one overnight, on Dec. 14. Through Monday, 69,964 affidavits had been completed, according to Peacock.

The affidavit requirement is the only program of its type in the state, and it has gotten push back from the business community since its debut. Operators of hotels, Pitkin County’s primary partner in the program in terms of informing and reminding visitors about the affidavit requirement, have said they appreciate its intentions but it also creates confusion for travelers.

One point of confusion is that while the county says participation is voluntary, the affidavit program has requirements that if not adhered to could net a $5,000 fine for the rogue traveler. The county also does not enforce the program. Hence the confusion for travelers, as well as their being turned off by the affidavit requirement and booking a ski trip elsewhere, business people have maintained.

At their monthly meeting Tuesday morning, members of Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors agreed the program is deterring visitors even when the county’s COVID-19 seven-day incidence rate — the number of positive cases per 100,000 individuals — has plummeted from December and January when it exceeded 2,000 and even 3,000 at one point. That figure has been below 200 since Feb. 10 and stood at 107 on Monday, according to county data.

Also Tuesday, ACRA President Debbie Braun provided a letter to Peacock and Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim director of Public Health, on behalf of ACRA members and the lodging community urging for the program’s suspension.

“Today, the cases are significantly down, and within the next six weeks we are about to move into the off-season, not high-season, this is the perfect time to remove the barrier created by Public Health and let the local hospitality and service workers get back to what they do best – providing top notch services and experiences for our visitors, instead of being enforcement officers,” the letter said. “Allow our hospitality partners and service providers a chance to finish the season with some momentum.”

Braun also previewed the letter to the board, and it was accompanied by a separate letter to the county board of health saying there is no data showing the affidavit program works. That letter, from the ACRA board, noted the state’s Feb. 6 release of a new COVID-19 dial giving counties more flexibility in making their public health orders. The county’s board of health voted Feb. 11 to align with the dial.

“One reason the state released this new dial was because they realized that none of the counties who voluntarily added mitigation tactics avoided the move to a more restrictive level, despite additional measures, such as the traveler affidavit. This is a strong case, made by the state to eliminate the affidavit,” the letter said.

The letter also noted that Aspen, a traditional front-runner among Colorado resorts for ski vacation bookings, posted the lowest lodging occupancy rate among ski towns in January.

With a 35.1% booking rate, Aspen bottomed out among resorts in the Rocky Mountain Lodging Report, commissioned by the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association. The same survey from January 2020 showed Aspen had a 79.8% reservations rate, which was the state’s second highest overall, and also second among resorts, as the ski town Steamboat Springs’ 80.4% rate was tops in all of Colorado that month.

County Commissioner Greg Poschman, also a board of health member, said he would be agreeable to revising the program so long as it conveys how seriously the Aspen area takes the pandemic. He pitched replacing the traveler affidavit with a traveler pledge of sorts.

“I’m OK with that for now, as long as our messaging is very clear that this is what we expect from our residents and visitors,” he said. “We invite people to take the pledge that they will get tested or they will get vaccinated before they come.”


Basalt sales tax revenues up 15% in pandemic year

Shops in Willits Town Center in Basalt bustled for a good share of 2020, including Basalt Bike and Ski and Bristlecone Mountain Sports. Sales by sporting goods retailers were cumulatively up 13.4%.

Basalt’s final sales tax report of 2020 reflects record-breaking revenue in what was a horrid year in many ways.

Sales tax revenue increased by $1.014 million or 15.1% in 2020 over 2019, according to the report by town finance director Christy Chicoine. It was released Tuesday.

The town reaped $7.73 million in sales tax revenue in 2020 compared with $6.72 million the year before. Basalt’s sales tax revenue has nearly doubled since $3.7 million was collected in 2011, the report showed.

Town manager Ryan Mahoney said the final result was not a surprise because the trend of rising sales tax revenue despite the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent earlier in the year. However, the result would not have been expected when the pandemic forced a shutdown of Roaring Fork Valley businesses in March.

“I would have been hard-pressed (to predict the outcome) because of so many unknowns at that time,” Mahoney said.

One big difference for the town and multiple other jurisdictions was a new state law requiring sales tax collections on online sales. Last year was the first full year it was in effect. Mahoney estimated online sales were responsible for between one-half and two-thirds of Basalt’s increase.

Sales tax revenue goes to the town’s general spending fund and to the parks, open space and trails fund.

Several but not all business sectors enjoyed a booming year. Retail food sales were up 8.7%, mostly powered by the town’s two large grocery stores. Basalt collected $2.54 million in sales tax revenue just from retail food sales.

Other big gainers during the pandemic year were building materials, up 52%; retail liquor and marijuana, up nearly 25%; general retail, up 29.5%; and sporting goods retail, up 13.4%.

Restaurants had an up-and-down year. Superb summer weather combined with expanded outdoor seating in public right-of-way benefited many businesses. But they also faced capacity limits when diners were forced indoors by cold weather.

Restaurants with bars were flat in 2020 compared with the prior year. Restaurants without bars were down nearly 16%.

The lodging industry also had an up-and-down year, ending with sales down nearly 9%.

The first report of 2021 shows Basalt remains on an economic roll. The January sales tax report shows sales were up 16.3% compared with the same month last year. The January report reflects actual sales in December, due to the lag in collections. So, the January report indicates businesses enjoyed a strong holiday period.


State marijuana tax dollars provide limited support locally

Marijuana is displayed in glass canisters in glass cases around High Q in the Snowmass Village Mall. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The three-county region of Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin encompasses 5,621 square miles, has a combined population of 133,000 residents, and is home to dozens of marijuana shops.

Those stores also combined for more than $66 million of Colorado’s record-breaking $2.2 billion in retail sales of marijuana in 2020, according to Colorado Department Revenue data.

Consumers of retail marijuana in Colorado are hit with a trio of taxes at the point of sale — there’s a 2.9% state sales tax, a 15% marijuana retail sales tax (not applicable to medical pot), and a 15% excise tax. Some municipalities — such as Snowmass Village, but not Aspen — have additional taxes on cannabis. Snowmass voters passed a 5% sales tax on marijuana in November 2018.

Pot sales and populations

Retail marijuana sales in 2020

County Sales

Eagle $22.8 million

Garfield $29.2 million

Pitkin $14.4 million

Total $66.4 million

Source: Colorado Department of Revenue; totals are rounded up

Populations by county

Eagle 55,127

Garfield 60,061

Pitkin 17,767

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (figures based through July 2019)

Taxing marijuana has been a primary arguing point for advocates of cannabis legalization, including those “fiscal conservatives who complain America is spending $40 billion a year on the War on Drugs rather than making a few billion taxing it,” journalist Ioan Grillo wrote in “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,“ published in November 2011.

When it comes to billions in tax revenue from pot sales, count Colorado — where in November 2012 voters passed Amendment 64 legalizing the sale of retail marijuana, pitched as a boon to school districts’ coffers — among the beneficiaries. Voters a year later in 2013 approved Proposition AA calling for a 15% excise tax and up to 15% retail tax, which started at 10%.

Ever since the clock struck 9 on the morning of Jan. 1, 2014, in Colorado, people have been buying marijuana legally, needing just an ID to show they’re 21. Through December they’d bought enough cannabis products — that doesn’t include paraphernalia and other accessories — to close in on the $10 billion mark in sales. More precisely, it was $9,978,794,073 in sales through December.

From February 2014 to January 2020, the state had collected $1.6 billion in marijuana taxes and fee revenue, according to the Department of Revenue.

Colorado marijuana tax revenue

2021 $35 million (January only)

2020 $387.5 million

2019 $302.5 million

2018 $266.5 million

2017 $247.4 million

2016 $193.6 million

2015 $130.4 million

2014 $67.6 million (Feb – Dec)

Source: Colorado Department of Revenue

Where the money goes

On its website, the Colorado Department of Education notes “though the amount of tax revenue that comes from marijuana sales is minimal — around 1 percent of the state’s total education budget — the money is directed to a variety of programs, including school construction, bullying prevention and behavioral health.”

The chart from the Colorado Department of Education breaks down the method in which marijuana tax dollars are allocated.

The Aspen School District has seen some marijuana tax dollars — more than $80,000 annually for three years to pay for a district counselor from 2017-20. That money, $250,000, came from the School Health Professional Grants Program, which is supported through taxes from marijuana sales.

Yet the district, which is coming off a November win at the polls where voters approved spending $95 million on capital improvements, hasn’t reaped any of money from the Colorado Department of Education’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program since it started to receive one-third from marijuana excise tax dollars. The program also is supported by revenue from the Colorado Lottery and the state land trust. BEST budgeted nearly $90 million for fiscal year 2019-20 to go toward school construction, according to the CDE.

BEST, which was established in 2008, in 2012 approved a grant application from the Aspen Community School, awarding it $4.2 million toward the construction of the new charter school in Woody Creek.

At the time the grant was awarded, the BEST program was not supported by marijuana dollars.

Aspen School District CFO Linda Warhoe said other than funds used to pay a school counselor, the district has seen minimal marijuana tax revenue. The Aspen Education Association raises private funds for the district and provides the district with much greater financial aid without the strings attached to state funding, she said.

Even so, Warhoe said the district plans to be more aggressive when it comes to pursuing marijuana tax dollars.

“I think our governor has heard loud and clear from school districts that this isn’t benefiting everyone, and there’s money sitting there not being spent. And we’re sitting here with no pay raises,” Warhoe said of stagnant wages.

“We need to make sure our voices are heard,” she added.

From 2015-19, the city of Aspen’s take of state marijuana taxes was $525,000, including $168,011 in 2019, according Pete Strecker, city finance director.

“The state has requirements around its retained portion of the tax, but for our local government share – we apply these as discretionary resources for supporting departments under the General Fund,” Strecker said in an email to The Aspen Times.

Snowmass Village Town Manager Clint Kinney said he isn’t aware of any state marijuana tax dollars coming to the town. The town combines its local tax revenue from tobacco and marijuana sales, which totaled $134,917 in 2020. Similar to Pitkin County’s tobacco tax, which will increase 10 cents annually until it reached $4 per pack, the collections will be used to support local social and mental-health services.

Pitkin County and local law enforcement in 2018 also received a grant from the state Office of Behavioral Health, which came from state marijuana tax revenue, to create a diversion program intended to keep people struggling with mental health issues or with substance abuse out of jail.

The progarm, called Pitkin Area Co-Responder Team, is supported by a grant of “up to $362,500 per year from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, which was awarded to Pitkin County Public Health in 2018 by the Colorado State Office of Behavioral Health,” the county said at the time.




Aspen-Snowmass winter occupancy pacing down 45% from last year

Now that ski season has passed the halfway point, a more complete picture is starting to unfold about winter occupancy in Aspen and other western mountain resorts. As expected, it isn’t pretty.

Stay Aspen Snowmass, a central bookings agency, released its monthly occupancy report on Wednesday, and it included a look at the numbers for November through April.

“As of January 31, the winter is pacing down 45.2 percent to this time last year,” the report said. “Demand has increased for the later half of the season and with the FIS Snowboard World Championships and NASTAR Nationals added to the calendar, March and April are expected to fill in nicely.”

Paid occupancy for the winter, based on reservations that have already been made, is 29 percent for Aspen and 31 percent for Snowmass Village. Both towns were in the mid-50 percent range last winter as a whole.

Aspen and Snowmass Village rely more heavily than many resorts on destination travelers, those taking an overnight visit. They don’t draw as much one day-trippers from urban areas.

For the bigger picture on occupancy, DestiMetrics looks at bookings at lodging properties in 18 mountain destinations across eight western states. DestiMetrics is the “business intelligence division” of a company called Inntopia.

DestiMetrics’ mid-winter report said cumulative occupancy for the resorts it monitors is down 27.8 percent for November through April. Aspen and Snowmass Village were well off that mark with the decline of 45.2 percent.

The average daily rate for all resorts was down 6.2 percent year-over-year for the winter, according to DestiMetrics. Significantly lower occupancy and a decrease in the average daily rate spells disaster for winter revenues.

“The sluggish occupancy when coupled with lower rates is creating a dramatic 32.3 percent decline in winter revenues — but again, an improvement over last month when they were down 36.9 percent,” DestiMetrics said in its report.

January was particularly brutal for Aspen and Snowmass Village. International tourism and group business — the bread-and-butter for the start of the year — were non-existent. Pitkin County also temporarily moved to “Red” on the COVID-19 dial, forcing further restrictions on business capacity.

Aspen’s occupancy for January was 38.3 percent, down from 75 percent for the month in 2020, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass.

Snowmass Village properties managed only 31.7 percent occupancy, down from 75 percent in January last year.

An independent analysis by the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association showed that multiple other Colorado resorts topped Aspen for occupancy in January. Vail was at 49.3 percent, Breckenridge was at 54.8, Steamboat Springs at 44.7 and Telluride at 37.7, according to the association’s Rocky Mountain Lodging Report. The association had a slightly different occupancy for Aspen in January at 35.1 percent compared to 38.3 percent noted by DestiMetrics.

DestiMetrics and the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association had vastly different figures for the average daily rate in Aspen properties. The change may be due to different properties in their samples.

DestiMetrics said Aspen’s average daily rate in January was $484. The lodging association’s Rocky Mountain Lodging Report said Aspen’s average daily rate in January was $634.87, significantly higher than Vail ($419.16) and Telluride ($495.11).

Aspen Snowmass’s outlook for February occupancy was also grim based on reservations on the books as of Jan. 31. The cumulative occupancy was 34.5 percent, which is nearly 55 percent off last year’s level for the month, according to Stay Aspen Snowmass.

DestiMetrics noted in its report that consumers are making reservations close in time to when they want to travel, perhaps reflecting caution because of the pandemic.

“Bookings made one to 30 days in advance are the predominant transaction, and through some strategic rate management, many properties are achieving some incremental fill,” Tom Foley, senior vice president for business operations and analytics for Inntopia, said in a news release.

No numbers are available yet on the expected decline in skier visits for Aspen Skiing Co. and other resort operators.


Short-term rentals in Aspen showing their impacts

This pie chart from the city of Aspen’s Finance Department shows how the accommodations industry fared in December. Short-term rentals comprised approximatey one-third of the total.

The city of Aspen’s finance whizzes are starting to get a better understanding of the impacts short-term rentals are having on the lodging industry as well as the greater community.

With $6.5 million generated in taxable revenue in December, short-term rentals in Aspen accounted for approximately one-third of the sales tax revenue the city collected from the lodging sector in December. Traditional lodging posted $13.5 million in revenue in December, as the accommodations industry, even with short-term rental revenue factored in, was down 43.7% in Aspen during the holiday month compared with December 2019, according to a report issued last week.

This was the first December that the city included short-term rentals in its sales tax calculations, as the City Council on Oct. 13 passed legislation requiring $150 business licenses and vacation-rental permits for property owners who rent their homes or condos on a short-term basis. The city defines short-term as 30 days or fewer.

“Reviewing December accommodations by these subgroups has highlighted how less traditional lodging options made up roughly one-third of total taxable sales during the holiday month,“ wrote Anthony Lewin, the city’s senior tax auditor, in the Finance Department’s consumption tax report for December and all of 2020. The report was issued Feb. 11. ”This experience is believed to be influenced by the pandemic with tourists desiring their own space; but is also anticipated to reflect how changes within the municipal code have resulted in greater compliance in registering and tax remittance by these less traditional offerings.“

Pitkin County also was under some Red-level restrictions for part of December, a month where retailers posted a 37.3% decline in overall sales from December 2019, according to the report.

The new licensing program took effect in late October after the City Council had spent more than a year discussing legislation regulating short-term rentals. The first full-month of the program’s implementation, November, saw short-terms account for $761,059 in taxable sales, while lodges and hotels recorded $5.9 million in revenue, according to city finance records.

Requiring short-term landlords to acquire a business license and vacation-rental permit increases sales and lodging tax revenue for the city, and creates more fair competition with traditional lodges that pay higher property taxes because they have commercial designation, officials have said in support of the new legislation.

“Chalet Lisl is paying commercial property tax and the (rental) home across the street is paying residential property taxes,” said City Councilwoman Rachel Richards at a Feb. 2 joint work session with Pitkin County commissioners. “It’s unfair competition.”

During that work session, the city’s Phillip Supino and Pete Strecker, the respective heads of the Community Development and Finance departments, caught up elected officials on the program’s progress since its implementation. The impacts of short-terms aren’t limited to Aspen, and officials said they would like to see Pitkin County and Snowmass Village become part of a bigger conversation on the topic.

“We do believe that, given some of the shared impact this industry creates for the city and county, this is an issue ripe for collaboration between the city and county moving forward,” Supino said.

Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said, “Get Snowmass into the fold.”

Other impacts of the growing business of short-term rentals include their effects on government services as well as the workforce and where it is housed. As well, the short-term rental segment — which is fueled by such online companies as VRBO, Airbnb and HomeAway — is likely replacing those pillows vacated by the older Aspen mom-and-pop lodges that have closed this century, Richards said.

“How many new commercial hotels do we need when we have this much private short-term rental activity happening year-round?” she said.

An estimated 1,000 or more units are in Aspen’s short-term rental inventory since the program debuted, Strecker said, noting that figure did not include the number of beds. He estimated there is a 25% rate of noncompliance with the program where short-term rentals are not participating.

Supino and Strecker said they have been contacting property owners who aren’t participating. They said they are aiming for a soft sell before taking any enforcement.

“We want to make sure they’re all doing their part,” Strecker said.

The city had about 70 vacation-rental permits on file before the program was introduced.

“With the new system there is a total of roughly 650 vacation rental permits, which we expect to increase as owners obtain permits. This new total includes previously non‐compliant properties,” Lewin said in another tax report issued in January.

Said Supino: “This is a fast-moving industry with consequences for our community that we yet don’t fully understand and it’s going to be ongoing for us to continue to respond to the industry and how it affects our economy and our community.”

The accommodations supports municipal coffers through the city has a 2% lodging tax and a 2.4% sales tax. The combined sales and lodging tax rate in Aspen is 11.4%.


Ski, snowboard traffic picking up at Sunlight Mountain

A couple of skiers ride the chairlift up Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Saturday, 9:45ish a.m. Even the backup parking lot is nearing capacity. Casual conversations and giggles of happy children are sharply permeating the crisp air.

Sunlight Mountain Resort worker Jaramie Smith is busy directing traffic like it’s a Metallica concert. He helps push a small sedan stuck in the snow with a coworker, then goes back to playing mountain marshaller.

“We’ve just had good turnouts, and it seems like the crowds are pretty happy,” he said. “It’s good snow for the season, ya know? With more people coming up, we’re having more traffic to direct.”

Two weekends ago, people had to park on the county road leading to the resort. This past weekend, for the first time in the alpine oasis’ history, lift tickets were sold out. Single-day ticket sales are limited this season due to COVID-19 precautions.

“That’s a banner I thought I’d never make — those sold-out banners,” Marketing and Sales Director Troy Hawks said. “And I’m probably going to keep one as a souvenir, to be honest with you.”

A skier tows his daughter at Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Sunlight hit 1,600 ticket sales the weekend of Feb. 6-7. This Presidents Day weekend, Hawks anticipated anywhere from 1,200 and 1,600 in sales, with 1,500 passes being the sweet spot.

By 11:40ish a.m., good luck trying to find a parking space.

What the heck is going on?

Garfield and Pitkin counties are seeing downward trends in COVID-19 cases. And, as of Saturday morning, restaurants up and down the Roaring Fork Valley were officially operating at Yellow level on the Colorado COVID-19 dial (up to 50% indoor dining).

Overcast never felt so great. Fresh “pow!”

Pitchers of beer occupy picnic table tops near Sunlight’s base. Room on the ski racks is scarce. The site of an empty seat on the uphill chairlifts is uncommon.

A full ski and snowboard rack at Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Hawks said it’s the culture at it’s finest.

“It’s just an old-school powder day,” he said. “You have people cheering from the lift and people hitting powder shots underneath.”

This actually puts Hawks and the Sunlight Mountain crew in a bit of a tough spot. How do you maximize business while still trying to maintain social distancing?

Logistically, Hawks said he has to factor in how many season-pass holders will show up, how many hotel and Sunny ski packages there actually are and how many people will come up the mountain for a day pass.

Colorado problems …

“So, it’s a little bit of an experiment to hit that fine number,” Hawks said. “You don’t want to under sell, you don’t want to over sell.”

Hawks said Sunlight is capable of catering to the rush, but the recent weekend parking situation were a bit of a stretch.

“With people parking way down the road, we are kind of outgrowing our volume there on that end of things, so we definitely encourage people to carpool as much as possible,” he said.

A secondary parking lot at Sunlight Mountain loaded with vehicles Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

It seems like people from coast-to-coast are starting to wake up from this COVID-19 coma and are out for blood.

“They are literally coming from around the country, and we do get some foreign visitation as well,” Hawks said. “But a lot of Texas — Texas has shown up in force. California has shown up really strong this year.”

“We’re still working on our data collection,” Hawks added. “One of my collection tools is just going to the parking lot and noting where the license plates are from.”

Kim Viera had just flown in with her family from Tampa Bay, Florida. She stood, one foot in a snowboard binding, with her husband near the base area.

With package rates pretty much double the price elsewhere, Viera said, “There’s just nowhere else to go.”

“With the pack and the deals, we ski for, like, $45 a day, versus $180, $200 at Steamboat,” she said. “It’s way better out here.”

A snowboarder washes his way down to the base of Sunlight Mountain on Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

Viera also said she likes the fact she can go enjoy some of Glenwood Springs’ most treasured amenities.

“I like the fact that it has the slopes and the hot springs,” she said. “And it is a fraction of the cost of the stupid tourist areas.”

Viera described the atmosphere of Sunlight on Saturday morning.

“Energetic but kind of chill, too,” she said. “Everyone’s just so nice. Everyone’s just, like, ‘Whatever, not a big deal.’ It’s cool … I like it.”

Waiting in one of the lift lines, Salida resident Daniel Brown said he came to Sunlight to beat the Presidents Day weekend rush encountered elsewhere.

“It’s not as crazy as a normal Presidents Day weekend could be,” said Brown, who has been skiing for 17 years.

“On average, it can be a complete zoo. Generally, honestly, I try to not ski Presidents Day weekend. We usually ski back country or something and stay away from the resorts.”

But the fresh powder and the agreeable weather drew Brown from his typical Monarch Mountain mainstay.

“It looks better than it was (Friday),” he said of the snow. “It’s pretty nice, honestly. It’s not like crazy cold and windy. There’s better coverage than what it looked like yesterday. Hopefully this cycle pulls some things together and helps the snowpack for the rest of the season.”

Riders on a chairlift at Sunlight Mountain acknowledge the camera Saturday morning. Ray K. Erku / Post Independent

For Hawks, he said he wouldn’t have guessed traffic would get this significant, especially if you asked him back in summer and fall 2020.

With about 48 days left in the season, he said the future is bright for Sunlight Mountain.

“Not counting any chickens before they hatch necessarily, but if we can see ourselves through to the end of the season, we’ll come off of here with a pretty profitable year,” Hawks said. “And that just bodes well with making future improvements here at the mountain.”

Sunlight has approvals from the U.S. Forest Service to build a new chair lift serving the East Ridge, and has been working for the past two years to cut new skiable terrain on the eastern pitch.


Local women make a heavy lift in buying Aspen CrossFit from longtime owner

Aspen CrossFit founder Erik Larson is selling his gym to new owners Katie Ertl, Megan Bourke and Jessica Moore. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

A trio of local women are acquiring Aspen CrossFit from owner Erik Larson, who started the fitness business in 2010.

Katie Ertl and her sister, Megan Harvey Bourke, along with Jessica Moore, will take over the business March 1. They’ve all been members of the gym and the CrossFit community for several years.

Ertl said she had caught wind through the rumor mill last summer that Larson was thinking about selling so she asked him about it. It turned out not to be true but it started a conversation that was acted on about a month ago when word in the gym was that Larson was considering a move.

“We didn’t want it to disappear so we made an offer,” Ertl said. “We are grateful that Erik started this 11 years ago and brought CrossFit to Aspen.”

Larson, who dropped his career job as a CPA to start CrossFit, said it’s been a life-changing experience but it’s time to take care of family, travel the Northwest, dive into photography and maybe write a book.

“Over 11 years I’ve had an epic and extraordinary experience with thousands of people,” he said. “Now it’s time to breathe some new life into the CrossFit community.”

The new ownership group plans to diversify and strengthen the business into the future, and look at ways to integrate the training program with other health-oriented disciplines like Pilates, and physical and massage therapy.

Aspen CrossFit founder Erik Larson has sold his gym to new owners Katie Ertl, Megan Bourke and Jessica Moore. Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times.

“We want to focus on strength and conditioning so we can be strong for things we love to do like skiing and mountain biking,” Ertl said. “We are really invested in supporting people’s health. We know how hard it can be to do something active every day (so) our goal is to have a community that supports that.”

Moore, who is one of six coaches at Aspen CrossFit, will handle operations but said all three of them will share in running the business.

They describe the Aspen CrossFit community as tight-knit, and members are there for each other to help motivate and push their limits.

“It truly is a community,” Larson said. “I’m going to miss it, but I have every faith that these girls will rock it.”


Insurer: Aspen restaurant’s pandemic losses not covered by policy

An illuminated sign marks the entrance to L'Hostaria, an Italian restaurant at 620 E Hyman Ave. in Aspen.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

An insurance company denied coverage to an Aspen restaurant financially hit by pandemic-related restrictions because there was no physical damage to the business’ property, attorneys said in a recent court filing.

In a written pleading filed Jan. 29, counsel for the Cincinnati Insurance Co. also argued for the dismissal of the lawsuit filed by L’Hostaria because the restaurant’s policy had property insurance coverage but not financial loss coverage.

“The coronavirus does not cause direct physical loss to property which is required for the coverage plaintiff seeks in this case,” according to Cincinnati Insurance’s response, which was filed by attorneys Michael Baniak of Chicago and Conor Boyle of Denver. “This is the majority view nationally in coronavirus-related insurance coverage cases like this. Plaintiff’s commercial property policy simply does not provide coverage for the purely economic loss alleged by plaintiff here. Finally, plaintiff has failed to allege a plausible claim for bad faith.

“Thus, plaintiff’s Complaint must be dismissed.”

L’Hostaria is seeking a court’s declaratory judgment that its general-coverage insurance policy applies to its business-loss claims. The case was originally filed Dec. 10 in Pitkin County District Court and in January was transferred to U.S. District Court in Denver. On Jan. 13, the date the case was transferred, Pitkin County restaurants were limited to 25% indoor seating capacity before Red-level orders closed indoor dining for 15 days starting Jan. 17.

“L’Hostaria ceased its business operations on March 16, 2020, pursuant to the applicable Executive and Public Health Orders,” the suit said. “Although L’Hostaria reopened on April 27, 2020, it resumed with only limited curbside pickup and dining, in accordance with the applicable Executive and Public Health Orders. … L’Hostaria incurred, and continues to incur, business interruption losses of approximately $40,000 per month as a result of the suspension of its operations caused by direct loss to property at its premises due to the presence of COVID-19.”

L’Hostaria’s Denver-based attorneys, Bradley Levin and Susan S. Minamizono, also argued in the suit that public health orders, by financially damaging the restaurant, triggered the restaurant’s civil authority coverage.

Cincinnati Insurance attorneys countered, “Direct physical loss to property other than property at plaintiff’s premises is necessary for civil authority coverage. Just as the coronavirus did not cause direct physical loss to plaintiff’s premises or property, it did not cause direct physical loss to other property.”

The response also argued that the Italian restaurant’s insurance “policy is a contract designed to indemnify loss or damage to property, such as in the case of a fire or storm. Coronavirus does not cause damage property; it hurts people.”

The parties are due in court March 30 for a scheduling conference before Magistrate Judge Gordon P. Gallagher.


Business Briefs: New GM at Hotel Jerome; Steadman hires Dziedzic; CBRE expands in Aspen

Hotel Jerome names Patrik Davila next GM

Hotel Jerome announced the hiring of Patrik Davila as general manager.

Davila’s has more than 20 years in luxury hospitality. At Hotel Jerome, he will lead operations, guests services and innovative programs.

“I am truly delighted to join Auberge Resorts Collection and the iconic Hotel Jerome,” Davila said. “It is an honor to work alongside this talented team to create an enhanced experience that allows guests and locals to continue to create memories in a world-class environment. I look forward to elevating the unique personality of Hotel Jerome by highlighting Aspen’s glorious surroundings and happenings.”

Steadman group adds Kathryn Dziedzic to staff

As part of its expansion into the Aspen area, the Steadman Philippon Research Institute has hired Kathryn Dziedzic as its director of philanthropy for the Roaring for Valley.

Dziedzic has been in the valley for the past five years, and most recently worked at the Aspen Resort Chamber Association. She has been a small business owner and has worked at several nonprofits and has sat on nonprofit boards of directors, according to the institute.

“She believes in community, connecting with people, the benefits of exceptional research and collaboration,” SPRI chief scientific officer Dr. Johnny Huard wrote in a letter announcing Dziedzic’s hiring. “In all her past roles and her new role at SPRI, Kathryn is committed to connecting with everyone she meets and getting to know them on a personal level. While philanthropy is about fundraising, it is also about championing a mission and building a community. I — and all of SPRI’s scientists and leaders — know that Kathryn is the individual to foster SPRI’s new community in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley.”

For more on the institute and its expansion into the Roaring Fork Valley, Dziedzic can be reached at kdziedzic@sprivail.org or at 970-975-0173.

CBRE expands in Aspen

CBRE announced that it has expanded its retail advisory and transaction services with the addition of Jacey Siller, who will be based in Aspen.

Siller joins CBRE as a vice president, focusing primarily on luxury and urban retail in Aspen. She joins Bryan Semel, who joined CBRE in February 2020. The team is currently leasing a new retail development on Hyman Avenue in downtown Aspen.

Siller most recently was a leasing representative for Brookfield Properties in Los Angeles. She also has held roles at Combined Properties in Los Angeles and The Comras Company in Miami Beach.

“I are extremely excited to join CBRE and leverage the firm’s unrivaled breadth and depth of resources in multiple service lines as it will allow us to better serve our clients,” she said.

ValleyOrtho, Sunlight launch mountain cams

ValleyOrtho announced it is now the official sports medicine and orthopedic provider of Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs.

ValleyOrtho is underwriting two live mountain cameras named the ValleyOrtho Live Cam at Sunlight Mountain Resort. The cameras will showcase views of the mountain and display live, current snow conditions.

Through its sponsorship with Sunlight Mountain Resort, ValleyOrtho launched its first ValleyOrtho Live Cam in January at the top of Sunlight Mountain Resort’s Primo Lift at an elevation of 9,900 feet. Sunlight Mountain Resort and Valley View are adding a second camera at the top of Sunlight Mountain Resort’s peak at 9,900 summit overlooking beautiful Mount Sopris. Viewers can access the live web cams through Sunlight Mountain Resort’s website and social media channels.