Ashcroft hut plan rests on housing, preserving ski area |

Ashcroft hut plan rests on housing, preserving ski area

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Cross country skiers pass through the ghost town of Ashcroft Sunday morning. Michael Brands photo.

ASPEN – The approval of huts to provide overnight accommodations at Ashcroft Ski Touring south of Aspen appears to hinge on two issues: fulfilling prior commitments to build worker housing at the site, and ensuring that the cross-country ski operation and the huts remain accessible to the public.

“Everything kind of falls into place after that,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards after Wednesday’s second review of a proposal from Ashcroft owner John Wilcox. The hearing was continued to Dec. 7, giving Wilcox and the county’s planning staff time to address the commissioners’ concerns.

For Richards, the prospect of allowing the construction of ski huts on private land at Ashcroft, only to see the property purchased and privatized at some point in the future, was troubling. “It becomes someone’s private backyard, in essence,” she said.

She called on the planning staff to come up with a mechanism to ensure continued access to the huts and continuation of the ski touring operation after Wilcox steps away from the business.

“It’s a little dicey, and I want to sleep well, knowing that if I approve this, it’s not going to become something else over time,” Richards said.

The conversion of the former Elk Mountain Lodge nearby to a private mansion was noted frequently in the course of the discussion.

“How do we ensure Ashcroft remains publicly accessible?” agreed Commissioner George Newman. “Somehow we need to put in some sort of deed restriction, if that’s possible.”

Ashcroft Ski Touring, in the picturesque upper Castle Creek Valley, operates primarily on National Forest land, under a permit with the U.S. Forest Service. The area’s restaurant, the Pine Creek Cookhouse, and the King Cabin ski touring headquarters also are on federal land, but the proposed seven huts would be placed on private land owned by Wilcox and his wife, Juliet. Also in their ownership is the property containing their 5,000-square-foot home, which would be rezoned for inclusion into the ski area under the proposal. It, too, would be available for overnight stays.

Wilcox has proposed the ski hut concept to enhance the business, which currently consists of the restaurant and groomed cross-country ski area, which skiers pay to use. He also contends it would be a worthwhile tourist amenity.

Commissioners, at least, appeared in agreement about the value of the nordic skiing experience there.

“How do we ensure that Ashcroft remains a viable nordic center for the public?” Newman mused.

Commissioner Michael Owsley suggested that the ski huts could help that cause.

“That’s part of our responsibility here, it seems to me, is to provide an opportunity for that business model,” he said.

The ski-recreation zoning that already covers most of the private land at Ashcroft and would be extended to include the private home, referred to as the Star Peak Cabin, also helps prevent its privatization, Owsley said. Commissioner Rob Ittner agreed.

Commissioner Jack Hatfield pressed for assurance that the two one-bedroom cabins and three-bedroom residence that Wilcox previously committed to providing as employee housing will actually get built. The current deadline for construction – by the end of this year – will not be met, and an extension will be necessary.

“I really expect the housing to be built,” Hatfield said. “I would like to require that it be built. I really feel there was an absolute obligation.”

Two existing cabins that currently house employees would become ski huts in the development proposal; an off-site housing arrangement is proposed to replace them.

Still a matter of debate is how many additional employees the ski huts, to be open summer and winter, will generate and how much a resulting impact fee will be. Whether the huts are considered luxury versus standard accommodations plays into the formula. Commissioners agreed that only the Star Peak Cabin might fall under the luxury category and asked for more information about what sorts of services will be offered there.

Wilcox has said he anticipates the need for two more workers and said his vision for the huts is “rustic” rather than luxurious.