Aspen Skiing Co. urges Pitkin County commissioners to pursue more employee housing, ban natural gas in new buildings |

Aspen Skiing Co. urges Pitkin County commissioners to pursue more employee housing, ban natural gas in new buildings

Aspen Skiing Co.'s Hub at Willits includes eight affordable-housing units for child-care professionals.
File photo

Denser housing projects for employees and banning natural gas in new buildings highlighted the suggestions Aspen Skiing Co. executives offered Pitkin County commissioners this week during what was Mike Kaplan’s final visit with the board as the company’s CEO and president.

Their advice was solicited by Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who asked Skico leadership to “tell us where you would like us to prioritize and be bolder on policy matters that align with the goals Aspen Skiing Co. is pursuing, as well.” 

Skico obliged, urging commissioners at Tuesday’s work session to take on “unpopular positions” they said are fundamental to community sustainability and progress and also address climate change. Employee housing topped their list. 

For its potential to be maximized, though, Skico officials made the case for dense, energy-efficient residential projects near highways and business centers. 

“How you manage residential and manage the impacts of residential is something, I think, that we’ve missed as a community, and we need to get on top of,” said Kaplan, who is retiring from Skico. His last day is April 30. “And, obviously, a key part of that is housing, and this conversation around housing is important. But, at the end of the day, we need more housing to make this community function. It should not be confused with unfettered growth. It’s very different from free-market development, and we encourage you to really push and do what you can to build smart housing.”

Skico-owned housing inventory comprises about 900 beds in the Roaring Fork Valley. The company houses an additional 100 employees between the properties it leases and the properties it uses through its Tenants for Turns program. The program gives Skico perks, like season passes, to homeowners who lease rooms or properties to company workers for the season.

Skico’s inventory includes the 53,000-square-foot Hub at Willits, a $19 million Basalt development with 43 units and 150 beds. It opened over Memorial Day weekend of 2021. Skico has touted it as the “first modern multi-family all-electric building in Colorado, getting its energy from solar panels and cold-climate heat pumps to create a totally carbon-free living facility.”

Another Skico alternative-housing initiative in 2017 was the opening of a community of tiny houses at the Skico-owned Aspen-Basalt Campground, by the Highway 82 bus line. Forty tiny houses populate the campground, and Skico has ordered 12 more four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes for arrival this year, with plans for a dozen in 2024, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico’s director of public relations. That adds up to nearly 100 more beds.

The city of Aspen also is planning an employing-housing development on an 11-acre site next to the Aspen Airport Business Center. Called the Lumberyard project, the estimated $400 million development calls for 277 units with 467 bedrooms. They would comprise 195 rental units and 82 for-sale units. 

A formal land-use review and approval process will be conducted through public hearings this year. Provided those formalities — which can take on their own contentious lives — are cleared, construction would begin sometime in 2024, according to the city. 

The unrealized Lumberyard project is another good example of what Skico officials said serve the community smartly because of its proximity to bus service on Highway 82 and a community of businesses and employers. 

The project has gotten public pushback over the cost, density, and proximity to the traffic-burdened Highway 82 thoroughfare from the airport to Aspen. The project’s support has been fueled by housing proponents who argue that its necessity clips critics’ concerns and would actually ease traffic by taking some downvalley commuters off the road. 

“A lens of density, it’s the most sustainable way to do that, as painful as that is for us,” Kaplan said. 

Pushback will come from neighborhood caucuses, warned Commissioner Greg Poschman, arguing for a “more holistic approach” toward housing solutions where the “NIMBY perspective doesn’t dominate discussions.”

Community leaders also should be championing like-minded, clean-energy housing projects that are mass-transit oriented, but the trend is going the other direction, said Auden Schendler, Skico’s senior vice president of sustainability.

“We are designed to be a mass transit-based community … but we’re evolving towards a car-based community,” he said.

Vehicle-trip statistics show that 22% of road miles traveled within Pitkin County are “residential service related,” said Michael Miracle, Skico’s director of community engagement. He attributed that figure to research done by the county Community Growth Advisory Committee. 

“And, the trendline that we’re on would have that number getting bigger,” said Miracle, who is a member of the advisory committee. “That is incompatible with the values that we are expressing in our infrastructure, and, with the entrance to Aspen plan, it sort of assumes that we have an economy that we did 25 years ago, which we don’t.”

Another suggestion from him: Create more seasonal housing for employees to establish a “steady-state economy.”

“If we improve our seasonal-housing stock, it betters our chance to do this,” he said. “ We (Skico) can build it ourselves on our own, but I think the larger community would benefit from it.”

There are more workers who want to live in Aspen for a season or two “than we realize,” he said. 

Government-owned and -run winter employee housing currently is offered at Marolt Ranch, Burlingame, and Aspen Highlands Village.

Kaplan also urged the commissioners to entertain solutions to house future generations of Aspen workers “so that our successors have a place to live as this community continues to evolve. I do think that yield increases over time as we age out our places and then you have new places come available. But, it is the issue … it’s nonstop, it’s something that keeps me up at night.”

Natural gas is another issue that Schendler implored the commissioners to address by following the lead set by the Crested Butte town government, the Aspen School District, Skico, TACAW, and other organizations. 

“The thing we would ask, this is hard, Crested Butte did it: no new natural gas buildings,” he said. “It’s hard. It will get pushback. It has to happen. It’s been done.”

Crested Butte’s town council voted to ban natural gas in August, making it Colorado’s first municipality to do so. The new law took effect in January. 

With that ice now broken, Pitkin County is positioned to make a strong, persuasive case to the community, said Schendler, who is also a climate activist. 

“So, that’s a big ask, but it’s really important,” he said. 

Twenty-one states, all conservative-controlled, have passed “pre-emption laws” that preclude local governments from passing natural-gas bans, according to nationally-published reports. Colorado is not one of them.

Kaplan has been a Skico employee for 30 years, including his time at the helm that began in November 2006. Commissioners and County Manager Jon Peacock thanked and commended him for his work and collaboration with the county over the years, whether it was with Winter X Games planning and logistics, navigating through the pandemic, or finding common ground on the Pandora’s expansion on Aspen Mountain.