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Creekers leery of campus expansion

John Colson

Woody Creek rancher and educator George Stranahan averted an all-out war with his neighbors this week.

But while open hostilities were avoided, there may be some skirmishes ahead as Stranahan pursues a proposed education-related development on a mesa above Woody Creek.

Stranahan (a part-owner of The Aspen Times) on Wednesday pledged to work closely with the Woody Creek Caucus concerning expansion plans at the Woody Creek Learning Community (formerly known as the Aspen Community School, operated by Compass, formerly the Aspen Educational Research Foundation).

Various members of the caucus had been alarmed by the development plans, and mounting opposition had led Stranahan to withdraw a formal development application from the county Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month.

The school campus was created by Stranahan and a cadre of locals in the 1970s, and has grown steadily, if slowly, over the years. It now includes the original school building, a couple of dormitories and early learning center, the Wylie Art Center and a “Main Street” of buildings where visiting craftspeople give classes and ply their trades.

The plan includes the possible realignment of the road leading up to the school, sending it in a wide arch farther to the west and north than its present course. Any new development, according to a presentation by planning consultant Tom Baker and architect Michael Hassig, would take place inside the loop of the road – the rest of the acreage surrounding the campus would be preserved as it is, with no prospects for development.

A master plan recently submitted to Pitkin County outlines a development scheme that ultimately could include 14 homes or apartments and nine or 10 new instructional buildings.

As part of the plans, the school will likely have to realign the lower portion of its access road, where it meets the Woody Creek Road. In addition, the Colorado Department of Health and the county have asked that several existing septic systems now serving the school be consolidated into one central system.

The plan, which would be built out over a matter of years, would nearly triple the present square footage of the school’s facilities, from just under 25,000 square feet now, to roughly 73,000 square feet if everything now envisioned is built.

But, stressed Hassig, this ultimate buildout figure includes “anything that they might want to do up there.” Some of it, such as a once-planned theater arts building, is no longer being considered for development, and other segments of the plan might face similar reductions or elimination.

The expansion is needed, according to Stranahan and others, to ensure that the school remains viable and a vital part of the Woody Creek community.

But, Stranahan declared in a emotional statement to the caucus, the development plans will be submitted to the caucus, and no formal application will be sent to Pitkin County until the caucus has had its say.

“It will not be a battle,” Stranahan told the caucus members. “We are not an assault team … we will be straight with you.”

But the plans have made more than one of Stranahan’s neighbors nervous. Baker acknowledged this in his presentation, noting the caucus planning commission had brought up a number of points that have yet to be addressed.

For example, he said, should the school be considered a commercial use? And will the Compass board continue to be dominated by local residents even after Stranahan is gone? What about light pollution from the increased number of light sources? How many more employees and volunteers will the growth generate, and is the school on the verge of operating seven days a week, night and day?

The caucus decided to form a committee to deal specifically with the Compass growth plans, and by extension to take a look at the broader implications of development proposals in the area.

Attorney Barbara Ornitz, who will head up the new committee, noted that the talks have already begun on a low level.

And, she said to Stranahan, “To be honest, George, if it wasn’t for our love for you, I don’t think we’d even be talking.”

She pointed out that this level of development has never been endorsed by the caucus in other locations, concluding, “The density is scary.”

The committee is to hold its first meeting on Feb. 2. While Stranahan said he had hoped to resubmit his plans to the county in April, he indicated Monday that the resubmission would be delayed to allow a full and unhurried consideration by the caucus.


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