Ashcroft ski hut plan raises host of concerns
September 29, 2011
ASPEN – The concept of huts to provide overnight accommodations at Ashcroft Ski Touring appeared to have support from some Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday, but they raised a slew of issues that the operation’s owner, John Wilcox, will have to address before the plan moves forward.
The cross-country ski area is south of Aspen, in the upper Castle Creek Valley, operating on 735 acres of national forest land. A restaurant, the Pine Creek Cookhouse, and the ski touring headquarters, the King Cabin, are also on forest land, but the proposed seven ski huts, also to be open for use in the summer, would be placed on private land owned by Wilcox and his wife, Juliet. In addition, they have proposed incorporating their 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom home into the ski operation and making it a hut, as well. An approved 3,500-square-foot residence near the cookhouse would not be built.
Commissioners took their first look at the proposal Wednesday before continuing their review to Nov. 2. They intend to visit the site before then. The county Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously in July to recommend approval of the plan.
“I think it’s fair to say this is unique. This is complex,” said Commissioner Rachel Richards, acknowledging issues that ranged from promised-but-unbuilt employee housing to the definition of “ski hut” and the character of the scenic valley. Traffic impacts, water availability and fear that the huts will become private residences if the ski tour operation ever disappears were also raised as concerns. Commissioners also balked at a proposal to sell the ski huts in fractional shares.
“I’m very concerned about a change in character in this area,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield. “Are we creating tourist accommodations and a resort at the head of the valley, or are we enhancing a cross-country ski area?”
Richards questioned whether an 800-square-foot cabin, which is larger than her two-bedroom condo, qualifies as a “hut,” let alone the 5,000-square-foot Star Peak Cabin.
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“We need a definition of what a ski hut is,” said Commissioner Rob Ittner.
“I guess I’m putting it out there that I’m very skeptical,” Richards said of the development proposal.
But Commissioner George Newman voiced support for the idea, though he called for some mechanism to make sure the ski tour operation continues.
“This is turning into a cross-country resort and I think that’s OK,” he said. “It is very unique. There is no other place to ski like Ashcroft. You’ve got those beautiful peaks.”
“I think it’s a fabulous plan on its surface,” Ittner agreed. “I think there’s some issues that need to be worked out.”
Among those issues is worker housing. Wilcox has proposed housing any new employees generated by the project – he estimates there will be two – somewhere other than at Ashcroft.
In addition, two one-bedroom cabins and a three-bedroom residence for employees that he has already committed to providing have yet to be built, despite several extensions granted by the county. The current deadline for construction – the end of this year – will not be met. And, in addition to five new huts of 500 or 800 square feet, two existing, 600-square-foot cabins that house employees would become ski huts in the plan.
“I’m actually fairly sympathetic to this application,” said Commissioner Michael Owsley, “but you’re asking us to restructure your commitments. I’m not sure I can do that.”
“This [housing] is supposed to be on-site, and it’s supposed to be there now, and it hasn’t happened,” Richards said. “It raises credibility issues for me.”
A fire that destroyed the former cookhouse forced the replacement of the restaurant before there was a business plan in place for the greater development, Wilcox explained. And, because the promised housing will go on forest land, banks have balked at lending money for the structures. The restaurant, a multimillion-dollar building, is also on national forest land, he noted.
Wilcox said he hopes approval of the ski huts will help secure financing for the housing and replacement of the King Cabin. The county staff, however, is calling for construction of the housing and other elements of an already-approved master plan to come first.
Ashcroft Ski Touring and the cookhouse were previously listed for sale, and Wilcox said he would still like to find a buyer for the operation and retire. Approval of the hut plan, including the Star Peak Cabin, could at least help attract a partner, he said.
Newman quizzed Wilcox on whether there’s a way to make the skiing at Ashcroft free as part of the plan. Currently, a fee is charged at the privately run area, which is not part of the free Aspen-Snowmass nordic system.
“I’ve never been against it. I’ve just never quite figured out how to do it,” Wilcox said. The county’s Open Space and Trails tax supports the maintenance of the Aspen-Snowmass system, he noted. There have been talks about bringing Ashcroft into that system.
But Richards voiced concerns about increasing traffic if the skiing is free, and Hatfield urged commissioners to focus on the development plan and not complicate it with debate on incorporating Ashcroft into the Aspen-Snowmass system.
“I have no problem with for-pay skiing,” he said.