Aspen Mountain’s Pandora expansion gets first approval from Pitkin County commissioners; questions remain
Proposed zoning change will go to public comment July 24
While Wednesday’s split vote by Pitkin County commissioners on expanding Aspen Mountain’s ski terrain moves the plan forward, it appears far from set in stone.
“I’m not totally convinced of the need for the Pandora expansion right now,” Commissioner Steve Child, who cast the lone dissenting vote Wednesday against the plan, said Thursday morning. “We need to take a step back and look at this a little more closely.”
The Aspen Skiing Co. wants to spend about $9 million to construct a new detachable quad lift and expand Aspen Mountain’s skiable terrain into the ski area’s upper east side, skier’s right of Walsh’s, known as Pandora. In order to do that, commissioners must rezone about 167 acres of that area to a designation called SKI-REC, which allows numerous recreational uses.
A trimmed version of the county board — just three of five commissioners were present Wednesday — voted 2-1 to move that rezoning question forward. However, the rezoning won’t become official until commissioners hold a public hearing July 24 and vote again on the final ordinance.
Child said Thursday that his main concern with the rezoning relates to the county’s unique and restrictive Rural and Remote Zone District. That designation is meant to curtail development of the backcountry and allows only a maximum footprint of 1,000 square feet of building space on a parcel.
In the case of Pandora, Skico wants the county to rezone about 132 of the 167 acres from Rural and Remote to SKI-REC. The remaining 35 or so acres are zoned with an agricultural/residential designation, which is far less restrictive in terms of development.
“It really boils down to upzoning the Rural and Remote zoning,” Child said. “We’re setting a precedent to get rid of Rural and Remote zoning for high intensity development from expanding the ski area.
“(Pandora is) a huge development compared to Rural and Remote.”
The rezoning means other owners of Rural and Remote parcels could approach the county with a business plan for the property.
“They could say, ‘You did it for the ski company, why don’t you let us do it also?’” Child said. “So, that’s my fear.”
Commissioner George Newman said he thought those concerns had been addressed after commissioners decided a month ago in executive session — which is not public — to include conditions to the rezoning ordinance that restrict use of the area.
“We had directed (Pitkin County Attorney) John Ely to come up with an ordinance that ensures no further expansion and development (of Pandora) beyond what is proposed,” Newman said Thursday. “All the commissioners at the time were in agreement with that. I don’t know why (Child) didn’t bring (his objections) up then.”
The conditions allow winter-only activities in the Pandora area, including skiing and snowboarding, but nothing else in the SKI-REC zone, Ely said Thursday. Commissioners didn’t want to see another Sundeck or guest cabins in the future within Pandora, he said.
“They were looking for a way to allow the ski area to expand but not have these other things,” Ely said.
Child said he didn’t recall agreeing on anything in that executive session.
“John Ely laid out a couple of possibilities, then they show up in an ordinance I didn’t feel like I had signed off on,” he said. “Maybe John and George thought we had all agreed.”
Child also said he objected to wording in the proposed ordinance justifying the rezoning though it conflicts with the goals of the East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan. Specifically, he said he didn’t like a portion of the ordinance that says recent development of Richmond Ridge constituted a change in the conditions of that area since the adoption of the master plan in 2003.
“I thought that was really bogus reasoning,” he said. “That’s not what’s going on now.”
Still, Child said he hasn’t made up his mind yet about the Pandora expansion.
“I know we live in a ski resort town,” he said. “I know skiing is the basis for the winter economy. I get that. I might ultimately vote in favor of Pandora.”
Newman said he feels like most of the questions associated with the rezoning have been answered. Those remaining include the need for more details about tree-cutting and concerns about water use for snow-making, he said.
But he said he felt it was important to move the process forward and that questions raised Wednesday can be answered in the next month before the public hearing. If they can’t be answered in that time, the final vote on the ordinance could be postponed, Newman said.
“We have a month to get back together and go over our differences and see if there are issues we need to clear up,” he said. “We also didn’t get a chance to hear from (Commissioner) Kelly (McNicholas Kury).”
McNicholas Kury gave birth to her second child Tuesday and did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from the discussions surrounding Pandora and the Aspen Mountain Master Plan now under consideration by the county board because she has family members who work for Skico.
Board Chairman Greg Poschman, who served as the swing vote Wednesday, said he thought both Newman and Child made good points and that he voted to move the issue forward because he knew the vote wasn’t final.
“I know it will come back (in July),” Poschman said. “That’s the reason I did what I did.”
The July 24 hearing will allow the public to comment further and the opportunity to further the discussion, he said.
“There are still a lot of question marks,” Poschman said.
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