Contentious Aspen Mountain cabin approved by county commissioners

After months of consideration, Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday approved a couple’s application to build a cabin on the backside of Aspen Mountain.

“Really, this is an issue of private-property rights,” Commissioner George Newman said. “The applicant has a right to build a 1,000-square-foot cabin. Frankly, the whole issue (is) one neighbor really objected to having another neighbor near them.

“Nothing in the code says you won’t have a neighbor.”

Mike and Emily Kloser — a Vail couple with long-standing ties to the Aspen area — filed an application to build the cabin on a 7.7-acre mining claim near the intersection of Little Annie Road and Richmond Hill Road. The area falls in the highly restrictive Rural and Remote zoning district, which limits any dwelling to 1,000 square feet or less.

The cabin will be built in a mature stand of conifer trees and include a shed, solar panels and a septic system. The main issue remaining is vehicle access to the property, which runs across federal land and must be approved by the U.S. Forest Service.

The effort to build the cabin was vigorously opposed by the Larsen family, which owns a rustic A-frame cabin nearby. Marcella Larsen, a former assistant Pitkin County attorney, led that opposition based on, among other reasons, the Klosers’ lack of access to their mining claim, view plane intrusions and the alleged property devaluation of the Larsen parcel the Kloser cabin would cause.

Larsen left Wednesday’s land-use hearing early to catch a flight, but her brother, Ben Larsen, said afterward he was disappointed with the decision. Still, he said he expected the approval.

“The writing was on the wall,” Ben Larsen said.

Both Larsens said they did not know if they would file a lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court challenging the county board’s decision.

“This is a sad day for the public interest and citizens of Pitkin County. Indeed, this is a development that requires exploitation of public lands,” Marcella Larsen wrote in an email to The Aspen Times. “The Pitkin County Commissioners have an adopted policy in their land use code (not optional as the Board states) that ‘inholdings’ should be transferred to public ownership. We hope Open Space & Trails will get involved and somehow ride in on a white horse to save the BOCC from themselves.”

Emily Kloser — whose father, John Miller, is a longtime shareholder in the Little Annie’s Basin — said she was happy with the decision but felt “drained” by the lengthy and costly process.

“A lot of the fun of planning the project was sucked out of it,” she said.

Kloser, who said she’s spent a big part of her life in the Little Annie’s Basin, was not sure if the process had been worth it.

“Ask me in a year,” she said. “We’re pretty simple people. This has been painful.”

Both Kloser and Ben Larsen, however, expressed hope that the families could reconcile their differences in the future and live as neighbors.

Commissioners spent about three hours on the application Wednesday, tweaking it with suggestions made by Marcella Larsen and convening an executive session in the middle to confer with two of their attorneys. That was on top of more than eight previous hours spent considering it as well as an afternoon visit to the cabin site Monday.

In the end, they voted unanimously 4-0 to approve it because, for the most part, they felt the cabin design was appropriate and was the sort of project meant for the Rural and Remote zoning district. Commissioner Greg Poschman recused himself from considering the project after he inadvertently had ex-parte communications about it, County Manager Jon Peacock said.

Commissioner Rachel Richards said she felt it was important to the residents of Pitkin County that the board stuck to their code, applied it fairly and diligently and upheld private property rights.

“This application is consistent with the code,” she said. “I can’t find a reason to deny this whether I like the application or not. It is appropriate.”

Richards added that she would like the Klosers to install curtains over the windows of the cabin to reduce nighttime light pollution, though the rest of her colleagues balked at officially requiring such action.

Commissioner Steve Child echoed Richards’ sentiments, saying he couldn’t find any reason to deny the cabin and that it was “a good project and well designed.” He also wished the future neighbors well.

“I hope the applicant and their neighbors can let bygones be bygones,” Child said.

Board Chairwoman Patti Clapper was less enthusiastic about the cabin and said she’d rather it was smaller and more primitive. She also expressed concerns about the lack of access, light pollution and urged the Klosers to make certain they do not trespass on the Larsen property during construction and afterward.