Commissioners scrutinize Mountain Rescue Aspen facility plan |

Commissioners scrutinize Mountain Rescue Aspen facility plan

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Courtesy of Charles Cunniffe ArchitectsThis rendering depicts the proposed new headquarters for Mountain Rescue Aspen, to be located on the outskirts of town along Highway 82.

ASPEN – A 45-foot training tower raised some eyebrows, but it was unauthorized demolition at the site of the proposed new headquarters for Mountain Rescue Aspen that proved a stumbling block to the plans Wednesday.

Pitkin County commissioners declined to consider giving the project initial approval on the advice of the assistant county attorney. According to the county code, approvals can’t be granted until the demolition violation is rectified.

Mountain Rescue representatives weren’t pleased with the delay, but an application for a demolition permit is being processed already and might be ready to issue in a couple of weeks, when the development application is back before commissioners for initial action.

Mountain Rescue Aspen Charitable Trust now owns the Highway 82 property, the former Planted Earth Garden Center site on the outskirts of Aspen. But it was the former owner, Dudley Hawkins, who began deconstructing one of the old nursery buildings without a permit, according to Hugh Zuker, Mountain Rescue president. He had permission to remove a greenhouse, with proper permits, but was dismantling a different building when Mountain Rescue halted the activity and locked up the property, Zuker said.

The county issued a notice of violation, or red tag, for the illegal work, but commissioners didn’t dwell on the misstep. Rather, they scrutinized the height of the proposed building, and particularly the tower but appeared generally satisfied with the proposal. Their review will continue Feb. 27.

Mountain Rescue is seeking approval for a new headquarters of about 13,500 square feet, including a 4,100-square-foot garage on the south end, a caretaker apartment, bunk rooms, a boardroom, a training room, a kitchen, a command center and the tower. The facility would replace the small cabin on Main Street in Aspen that has been home to the organization since its founding in 1965.

“Right now, we have no place to store all of our vehicles,” said Jeff Edelson, director of operations. “Our gear is literally all over the county. It will be nice to have it under one roof.”

The property also is better-situated for rescue operations, he said. It’s outside the bottleneck at the entrance to Aspen and across Highway 82 from the local airport, which comes into play when rescues involve use of an aircraft.

The building’s command center could serve as a backup to the dispatch facility for emergency personnel in downtown Aspen, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo added, and it could serve as an emergency-operations center involving various agencies in case of a large event, such as a wildfire.

“In my opinion, this building is an essential public-safety asset for the entire community,” DiSalvo said.

The training tower, proposed in the front, south corner of the building, would be shielded partly by trees, but some commissioners urged changes to its design or placement to make it less prominent.

“We initially looked at this and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an 80-, 90-foot tower?’ Then we got realistic,” Edelson said.

The tower won’t be a solid structure, and Deer Hill to the rear of the property will be visible through its framework.

“It’s 45 feet, yes, but it’s not a 45-foot building that you can’t see through,” Edelson said.

It will be used to test climbing equipment and practice rope skills, he said. Currently, members must haul equipment into the backcountry to train. Climbing in a controlled environment, within quick reach of help if someone is hurt, would be preferable, Edelson said.

“I have concern about the 45-foot tower,” Commissioner George Newman said, suggesting that it would prove a distraction for motorists on Highway 82. “In fact, this is going to be eye-catching, I believe.”

It will be no more a distraction than private jets next to the highway at the airport, or Buttermilk, where activity in the superpipe is easily visible from the highway, DiSalvo countered.

Commissioner Rachel Richards suggested some parameters on lighting of the tower, if it is to be used after dark, while Commissioner Steve Child said training by headlamp in the tower would be acceptable.

Commissioner Michael Owsley said he’s willing to consider exceptions to the county’s height and view-plane standards for Mountain Rescue, given the service it provides to the community.

No one voiced qualms with Mountain Rescue’s desire to construct a new headquarters at the site. The county had the right of first refusal when the property was put on the market, according to Newman, but stepped aside when it learned the rescue group was interested.

“It worked financially for us, and it’s in a great location,” Edelson said.

The property was acquired for $1.6 million, he said. Construction of the facility is estimated at $2.5 million. Mountain Rescue Aspen announced its intention to purchase the property after receiving a $1.5 million gift from a donor who was among a party rescued from a plane crash site in 1977.

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