Aspen Mountain expansion gets straw-poll approval after years of debate

Pitkin County commissioners signal in straw poll to rezone part of land to add 153 acres with Aspen Skiing Co.’s Pandora’s terrain; formal vote to come after details are worked out

A wildflower-covered steep grade looks out over Highway 82 and would be a part of the Pandora expansion on Aspen Mountain. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

A straw poll by the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday indicated Aspen Skiing Co.’s long-sought expansion into the Pandora’s terrain will finally earn approval.

The informal indication came with plenty of drama, with a flipped vote and change of heart.

Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child expressed their support for rezoning property that would allow the expansion on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said she remained opposed to the application.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to rezone,” she said.

That left Commissioner Francie Jacober as the swing vote since only four commissioners are voting on the issue. Commissioner Patti Clapper recused herself because her son-in-law works for Skico.

“I’m leaning in favor, depending on how the resolution comes out,” Jacober said.

The board did not take a formal vote Wednesday. Instead, county commissioners and staff will meet Nov. 17 to hammer out details on formal approval documents. They will accept written public statements until Nov. 10, but they won’t take comments at the meeting.

If the approval is formalized, it allows Skico to add 153 acres on the upper east end of Aspen Mountain, which currently has 675 skiable acres. The new terrain will be split among traditional, cleared trails and glades. Skico also will add a high-speed quad chairlift.

The last time that Pandora’s was before the board in 2019, Child said he couldn’t support the rezoning. He explained Wednesday why he flipped his vote.

“I’m not concerned about (the rezoning) anymore. I used to be hugely concerned,” he said.

To achieve the expansion, Skico needs the county to rezone 157 acres that are currently zoned Rural and Remote and Agricultural-Residential 10 acres to Ski-Recreation. Critics are especially concerned that changing Rural and Remote Zoning could set a bad precedent and unravel zoning that prevents backcountry areas of Pitkin County from being developed with mansions.

Skico has given up rights to any residential development on 157 acres both in the Pandora’s terrain and on two parcels on Richmond Ridge.

“It locks this land up long-term,” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan told the commissioners.

The pledge not to develop is written in stone in a protective covenant proposed by Skico. That helped sway Child’s vote.

“Skico is setting a really high bar for rezoning Rural and Remote,” Child said. “I’m not worried about somebody else coming in and wanting to rezone their property.”

He later added, “I don’t see this as a dominoes falling on Richmond Ridge.”

Like Child, McNicholas Kury said in 2019 that she couldn’t support the rezoning. She said Wednesday she wasn’t swayed this time around.

One of the major criteria for approving a rezoning is a change in conditions on the land. McNicholas Kury said she didn’t feel conditions have changed enough to warrant the rezoning.

Poschman supported the rezoning in 2019 and Wednesday night.

“I guess I want to be on a board that makes this happen,” Poschman said.

He claimed that a future board would approve the rezoning necessary for Pandora’s if the current board doesn’t. He didn’t want to “kick the can down the road” for a future board.

Poschman also referred to the significant public support for Pandora’s.

“From a political standpoint, we have an overwhelming number of citizens that support this,” he said.

Jacober acknowledged that she was persuaded to support the rezoning based on that widespread public support even though she said she personally felt more sympathetic to some of the letters of opposition on environmental grounds. Jacober wasn’t in office when Pandora’s came before the county commissioners in 2019.

Once the straw poll results were in and the commissioners took a break in deliberations, McNicholas Kury said, “Congratulations, (Aspen Ski Co.)”

If the approval is formalized, Skico will pursue grading and logging in summer 2022. The lift would be added in summer 2023, according to David Corbin, Skico senior vice president of planning and development. The best-case scenario is opening of the terrain for winter 2023-24.