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Aspen airport vision committee sends renovation recommendations to Pitkin County commissioners

A commercial aircraft departs Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The county reached a milestone Thursday in its public visioning process for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

After more than 140 hours of public meetings over a roughly 15-month period, the community-led Airport Vision Committee tasked with creating a holistic guide for future improvements to the airport handed over its final recommendations to Pitkin County commissioners.

The 21-person vision committee moved to approve its “common ground recommendations” in a nearly unanimous vote March 10. Over one month later, the committee passed the baton to county commissioners for review of the final report, continued discussion and eventually decision-making on what airport improvements are made.

“This has really been an unprecedented public process,” County Manager Jon Peacock said. “Everyone involved put in a tremendous amount of effort, time and talent. … It’s been impressive and humbling to be part of such a rigorous process that has really been citizen-led.”

Since early 2019, the Airport Vision Committee has collaborated with four working groups to look at what improvements and renovations should be made to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, establishing four guiding community goals for future development: promote and ensure all-around safety, reduce greenhouse gas and other pollutant emissions by at least 30% by 2030, reduce noise by at least 30% by 2030 and manage the growth of visitors via plane to be consistent with about 0.8% growth per year.

During the Thursday virtual Pitkin County commissioner work session, the three Airport Vision Committee co-chairs emphasized the fact that the monthslong process and its resulting common-ground recommendations center on and work to fulfill these goals.

“This is what our hundred recommendations are really aimed at and it’s what we hope different parts of our community will notice about the new airport,” said John Bennett, vision committee co-chair. “Ultimately, the airport plan we’re recommending to you is about improving our valley’s quality of life and sustainability; environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and community sustainability.”

Bennett also said the committee’s recommendations are the result of a lot of compromise and robust discussions. They include keeping the airport runway where it is but expanding its width to 150 feet; a new terminal between 75,000 and 90,000 square feet that is comfortable and welcoming, including seven “flexible” gates with “open air jetways;” improving public transportation to and from the airport; designing all airport facilities to have net-zero emissions; an airport solar farm and solar panels on the terminal and other roof structures.

The committee’s final report also suggests county commissioners formally approve and adopt all recommendations as a county ordinance or resolution to ensure continued public process, and that commissioners create a permanent Airport Advisory Board of citizen volunteers.

After a short presentation and comments, the Airport Vision Committee expressed its confidence in the “critical balance of community assurances” reflected in its final report presented to county commissioners Thursday. However, committee members also stressed that some of its most important recommendations and plans rely on successful negotiations and legally binding agreements with stakeholders such as the Federal Aviation Administration and specific airlines on what plane models are permitted to land at the airport.

If these negotiations fall through or aren’t as successful as hoped, the committee asked commissioners to pass the baton back to them so they can make alternate recommendations. The committee also suggested commissioners initiate these negotiations sooner rather than later.

“No question, this depends on negotiations. … If the negotiations are not successful, if our aspirations are not attainable in agreements with airlines, we invite the BOCC to come back to the committee because this plan would no longer work,” Bennett said, noting that an alternative recommendation shouldn’t take much time.

Bennett went on to say that legal experts the committee has consulted with imply that the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is unique and has some negotiating leverage with airlines, but there are no guarantees.

“We certainly have good grounds for negotiations and that’s really all we know. And all I would really add is that it would be no harm whatsoever that we can identify to try,” he said.

Outside of securing these stakeholder agreements, several vision committee members on the work session video call emphasized the need for county commissioners to discuss and evaluate future regional growth and improved public transportation — in conjunction with or parallel to the airport improvement plans — if they want to ensure the four core community goals for the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are met.

Commissioners acknowledged the complexity and multi-faceted nature of renovating the airport, and they repeatedly thanked the 120 community members who were a part of the airport’s lengthy public visioning process for their time and efforts to reach consensus.

They also made commitments to keep the identified core community goals in mind moving forward through the lengthy public process ahead, and to be transparent as possible.

“One of the things that jumped out to me in reading the report was a simple statement that said, ‘What’s good for the community is good for the airport,’” Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said. “That’s the lens I plan to regard these recommendations and these guiding documents through.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, county commissioners expressed uncertainty on when they’ll be able to hold an in-person, public forum on the proposed airport improvement plans, but Pitkin Board of County Commissioners Chair Steve Child assured that commissioners would be thorough in their review and include the public every step of the way.

“We are going to try to conduct business as usual despite the virus,” Child said. “We’re going to discuss the various parts of the report moving forward and will host an in-person meeting in the near future as soon as we are able.”

In the meantime, Pitkin County residents are encouraged to email their public comments to info@asevision.com.

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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