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County approves Vagneur’s snowmobile tour business

Jeremy Heiman

The Pitkin County Commissioners granted a one-year permit extension to Howard Vagneur’s snowmobile tour business Wednesday, against the recommendations of the county planning director.

Vagneur is said to have operated tours in the Kobey Park area north of Lenado since 1963, but the business has only been regulated by the county since 1998. His two-year permit was up for a two-year renewal yesterday, but the county extended it for one year instead because of some unanswered questions.

Several issues clouded the discussion in front of the board, as two Lenado residents asked the commissioners to deny Vagneur’s application. Commissioner Mick Ireland urged his fellow board members to put off a decision, because information submitted by Vagneur could not immediately be substantiated. But Commission Chairwoman Shellie Roy-Harper called for a vote, and the permit extension was approved. Patti Clapper, Dorothea Farris and Harper voted for the extension, and Ireland was alone in opposing.

When Ireland began to attack inconsistencies in information submitted by Vagneur, Harper called for cooperation between Lenado residents and Vagneur and lamented the decline of small businesses like Vagneur’s.

“I want to figure out how a man who’s been in business for 30 years can stay in business,” Harper declared.

Lenado residents Frank Peters and Daniel Delano submitted information of fuel contamination in soil near Vagneur’s trip-staging area outside Lenado. But no proof was available as to how the fuel got into the soil.

Vagneur maintained that the fuel analysis done by an independent lab showed that the fuel was not a type he uses. The presence of a component called MTBE indicates it was not his, he said.

But Peters argued that what the study actually says is MTBE is not found in measurable amounts, indicating the fuel could have been Vagneur’s. He objected to a paragraph in Vagneur’s letter to the county which implies that whoever reported the spill was also the party who released the spill.

“I think he implies in his letter that we put it there to crucify him,” Peters said.

Tom Dunlop, director of environmental health for the county, recommended that the county require Vagneur’s employees to learn to use spill kits designed to minimize the effects of spills of toxic fuels.

Delano and Peters also submitted a report by avalanche consultant Arthur Mears of Gunnison. Mears’ report indicates that four avalanche paths carrying slides characterized as “frequent or high-energy avalanches” intersect the Silver Creek Road used by Vagneur’s tours. The report criticized Vagneur’s avalanche mitigation plan, which indicates that avalanche danger is controlled by local snowboarders.

Vagneur argued that he had previously used explosives to control avalanches in those areas, but in 1987, he stopped the practice because of the complaints of Lenado residents.

The revelation that the Silver Creek Road might belong to the county, despite the fact the U.S. Forest Service has been paying the county to plow it, cast a shadow over the proceedings. Liability for avalanche incidents on the road might come with ownership of the road.

“I’m very disturbed by this,” said planning director Cindy Houben. “If we are approving this, we ought to do our best to make sure people are safe.” She recommended tabling the application until it can be determined what the county’s liability is.

But Commissioner Patti Clapper argued that people take part in many dangerous recreational activities in the mountains, such as backcountry skiing or mountain biking.

“There’s an inherent risk in some of these activities,” she said.

Ireland observed that, unlike other activities, the snowmobile operation was operating under permit from the county, and the county could be sued if someone is killed in an avalanche.

Vagneur agreed to indemnify the county in the wording of a release he already requires his clients to sign.

“I think it’s irresponsible,” Houben said of the approval after the meeting.


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