Aspen Skiing Co. flexes its muscle on Pandora’s plan
CEO Kaplan says a ‘no’ vote by county would force Skico to consider building homes at the top of Aspen Mountain
Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan warned the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday that denial of the proposed addition of the Pandora’s terrain would force the company to consider residential development at the top of Aspen Mountain.
Kaplan stressed that’s not what he wants to do but all options would be on the table if Skico cannot add 153 acres in the Pandora’s area on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain.
Kaplan expressed his frustration with the county planning department’s recommendation to deny the proposal and look at it after a master plan is completed for the Richmond Ridge area on the back of Ajax.
“When I see that staff recommendation, honestly, I’m shocked, is one way to say it,” Kaplan said at the commissioners meeting. “Because I read that recommendation as saying skiing has got to take a backseat to residential development.”
Skico is seeking rezoning of 167 acres of its private land to allow ski area expansion. On that land, Skico could develop three homes of the maximum allowable size in Pitkin County and four cabins of as large as 1,000 square feet each.
The rezoning request is controversial for some people because 132 acres of Skico’s land is zoned Rural and Remote, a classification that Pitkin County created in 1994 to prevent the backside of Aspen Mountain from getting developed in the same way as Red Mountain on the town’s north slope. Critics contend if the county allows a rezoning for Skico, it would unravel the protective zoning.
Kaplan countered that Skico is willfully requesting a downzoning. It would only build a chairlift, a ski patrol hut and little else in Pandora’s.
“We are relinquishing our residential rights up there, up to seven units,” Kaplan said. “We are saying this place is about skiing, we want to keep it about skiing. You’re saying ‘no’ if you deny this application. You’ll be sending this really strong message — skiing is secondary, secondary to residential use.
“Guess what?” Kaplan continued. “We have some rights up there. I guess we’ll go, ‘Huh, we’re a business. We have a fiduciary duty to maintain our assets and the value of our assets. I guess they’re telling us they want us to develop that. Maybe we should develop it in a way that would cater to a different clientele — more exclusive, more private, more restrictive.’ I shudder at the idea of that. It goes against my grain but that’s what I’ve got to think about.”
Kaplan spoke for nearly 15 minutes during Skico’s more than two hours of presentation. He referred to criticism from some members of the public who have suggested that Skico really wants the rezoning for Pandora’s as part of a larger development scheme on the backside of Aspen Mountain.
He said the denial would potentially trigger residential development rather than approving the zoning for the Pandora’s expansion.
“The irony here is it’s exactly what the conspiracy theorists are saying, that Pandora’s is just a foot in the door of some out-of-control residential development that Aspen Skiing Co. wants to pursue,” he said. “That’s not at all what we want to do, not at all the case.”
Kaplan’s speech livened up what had been a standard, dry land use debate. When he finished, county commissioner Francie Jacober replied, “I think I heard a threat.”
She said that if the county commissioners vote for denial, it would not be because they want to see residential development.
Kaplan said he didn’t intend to make a threat but wanted to point out the reality of the situation.
“We’ll consider all options, for sure,” he said.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first step in the county commissioners’ review. The Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the rezoning earlier this year.
The planning staff’s recommendation for denial is based on drastically changing conditions in the Richmond Ridge area over the past 20 years. The planning staff wants to look at the surging summer and winter uses and the development of luxury cabins in the Rural and Remote Zone. A luxury cabin of about 1,000 square feet is currently listed just shy of $1 million near the ridge.
After listening to seven hours of presentations and public comment, the commissioners continued the discussion until Sept. 8. They also intend to visit the site prior to that meeting on a date to be determined.
Skico needs three of four voting commissioners to approve the rezoning. Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself because her son-in-law works for Skico. In Clapper’s absence, the board was deadlocked 2-2 on the rezoning request two years ago. Since then, Jacober has replaced George Newman, who was term limited. Newman supported the Pandora’s proposal.
Commissioner Steve Child, who was against the rezoning in 2019, said he remains reluctant to rezone the 132 acres of Skico land currently zoned Rural and Remote. However, he said he wants the county to consider creating a new zone classification that would allow skiing but remain restrictive on development.
Child also said he would like to see the proposed Pandora’s chairlift realigned, with the bottom terminal remaining where it is proposed below the existing Walsh’s trail but the top terminal located where chair 7, the Couch, currently terminates.
It was unclear if Kaplan’s impassioned plea swung the other three commissioners.
“To be clear, this isn’t about real estate,” Kaplan said. “It isn’t about industrial tourism. It’s about skiing and snowboarding, and it’s about making sure the original Aspen ski area remains true to our founders’ vision and the passion for this sport.”