Aspen Mountain expansion plan fails to earn Pitkin County approval; Skico will re-examine proposal

A look at the plan proposed by Aspen Skiing Co. for the Pandora lift location.

Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to expand Aspen Mountain ski area into the Pandora’s terrain failed to earn the support Wednesday of the Pitkin County commissioners.

The board was deadlocked 2-2 on a critical rezoning necessary for the expansion. Commissioners Steve Child and Kelly McNicholas Kury opposed the rezoning. Commissioners George Newman and Greg Poschman supported it, though Poschman said he had several conditions.

Commissioner Patti Clapper isn’t voting on the matter because her son-in-law works for Skico.

McNicholas Kury held the swing vote. She was absent due to the birth of her child when the board voted 2-1 to support the rezoning in June in a first reading.

She quickly laid out her position in Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m not supportive of this zoning request right now,” she said. “While this technically might not be a spot zoning request, it smells like one to me.”

Skico officials asked the commissioners to continue the review rather than take a formal vote. David Corbin, Skico vice president of planning and development, said the company wants a chance to respond to comments and possibly amend their application.

The commissioners voted to continue the hearing on Sept. 11.

Skico asked the county to rezone 132 acres from Rural and Remote to Ski-Recreation and rezone another 35 acres from Agriculture Residential 10 acres to Ski-Rec.

That would allow the company to expand into Pandora’s, an area on the east side of the upper mountain. Skico wants to add skiing through glades and create traditional ski trails. It proposed building a high-speed detachable quad chairlift to serve the area. That also would allow the extension of the existing trails of Walsh’s, Kristi and Hyrup’s, popular expert terrain.

Skico CEO and President Mike Kaplan told the commissioners at an Aug. 21 meeting that the expansion would add the type of terrain demanded by skiers and snowboarders these days. There would be a lot of skiing in the trees to create a backcountry feel.

McNicholas Kury said Skico didn’t make a good enough case that conditions have changed enough to warrant the rezoning. Skico contended that use of the Pandora’s terrain has increased 20% to 30% over time without providing data to back the claim. She called the company’s work “sloppy.”

McNicholas Kury also said she wasn’t convinced there was a clear public benefit to the rezoning, as required by the county land-use code.

“People have to pay a pretty penny to access Pandora,” she said.

McNicholas Kury said the best way to determine if the rezoning was warranted was through the county’s East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan, a specialized planning document for the neighborhood. Approving Skico’s existing proposal for the rezoning could “undermine” the entire Rural and Remote Zone, approved in 1994 to protect the back of Aspen Mountain and along Richmond Ridge from rampant development, she said.

Child also emphasized that point. He said he would be willing to rezone the Agriculture Residential property but not the Rural and Remote land. Other area landowners and the public at-large have a right to depend on that zoning, he said, and rezoning would set a bad precedent. Child said he felt approving Skico’s request would “jeopardize the entire future” of Rural and Remote Zoning. Anybody with a viable plan for some type of use could seek a rezoning, he said.

Steve’s father, Bob Child, played a critical role as a Pitkin County commissioner in the 1980s and 1990s in creating many of the county’s growth-control measures. Bob, who is deceased, helped lay the groundwork for creating the Rural and Remote Zone in 1994.

Steve said he didn’t believe Skico’s rezoning request of the Rural and Remote land was justified.

“People have been doing snowcat and snowmobile skiing back there for decades,” he said.

There might be more use now, but the type of use hasn’t changed, he said.

By making the Pandora’s terrain a formal part of the Aspen Mountain ski area, “you’d be bringing a lot more people into what would have been Rural and Remote land,” Child said.

He proposed alternatives that would allow Skico to undertake a lower level of expansion into Pandora’s.

First, he said, Skico should consider aligning the Pandora’s chairlift so it unloads at about the same spot where the current Lift 7, also known as the Flying Couch, unloads at the mountaintop. That would allow skiing in the lower portion of the Pandora’s area, which Child is willing to rezone from Agriculture Residential 10 to Ski-Rec.

In the upper part of Pandora’s, Skico could provide guided skiing or provide more ski patrol support and open it up for skiers and riders willing to hike into it.

“I’m not totally opposed to people hiking into expert terrain to ski,” Child said. “People are used to hiking in a little bit to get to some real awesome terrain.”

Child said his idea would allow Skico to either eliminate Lift 7 or, as an alternative, it could update that chairlift and coordinate its operation with the Pandora’s terrain.

“I’m not totally saying no to the expansion,” he said. “I’m saying no to rezoning Rural and Remote.”

Child noted that one of Skico’s mottos is “defy ordinary.” He challenged the company to defy the ordinary ski industry approach of building a new chairlift to access more terrain.

“I think the Ski Company could do something extraordinary,” he said.

Child had floated the idea of realigning the Pandora’s lift at the Aug. 21 meeting. Corbin opened Tuesday’s meeting by saying Skico officials looked at the idea and dismissed it because it would only allow them to add two trails. The cost would outweigh the benefit.

“To us, that’s really not worth doing,” Corbin said.

He also said it wouldn’t work to develop the ski terrain but not build a chairlift. That would open up Pandora’s for only the strongest skiers and snowboarders.

“We want to offer this terrain to the general public,” he said. “Our proposal is what you have before you.”

Commissioner Newman embraced Skico’s proposal. He said Skico has a good history of making terrain accessible and safer, pointing to the expansion into Temerity and Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands and the Walsh’s area at Aspen Mountain.

Adding the Pandora’s terrain would be an important step in Aspen’s identity as a ski town, he said.

Poschman said he would like to see the rezoning advance as long as Skico made every effort to reduce its carbon footprint while removing the trees for the expansion and with a minimum of new roads.

“I think we have the same goal in mind, which is having the best skiing in the world,” Poschman said.

With the deadlock, Skico must amend the plan to earn approval, scrap the idea or try to harness enough community support to try to change the votes of the opposing commissioners.


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