Friends of Pandora’s focus on the skiing opportunity; foes stress zoning concerns |

Friends of Pandora’s focus on the skiing opportunity; foes stress zoning concerns

Proponents of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to add Pandora’s terrain at Aspen Mountain focus on the great skiing the move would unlock. Opponents stress the dangers of tinkering with zoning.

Both views got plenty of airtime Wednesday during the Pitkin County commissioners’ first public hearing on a rezoning request from Skico that would allow the addition of 153 acres on Aspen Mountain’s upper east side. The commissioners didn’t vote Wednesday and will continue their review Sept. 8.

About 24 people endured four hours of presentations before the county accepted public comment. Former Aspen mayor Bill Stirling spoke in favor of the Pandora’s expansion because, he said, it provides a clear community benefit. Local residents will clearly benefit from expanded skiing on a portion of the mountain that is now reserved as a private stash for those who can hike into it, he said.

Stirling presented a petition in support of the Pandora’s expansion that he said was signed by 1,146 people. At the public hearing, speakers in favor of Pandora’s outnumbered opponents by about two to one.

Cliff Weiss of Aspen expressed what many following speakers said — Aspen Mountain needs the Pandora’s terrain to remain competitive in a rapidly evolving ski industry. He said numerous resorts are adding terrain. Meanwhile, nothing has been added to Aspen Mountain since the Walsh’s trail opened in 1985.

“Ajax is our flagship and our flagship is getting tired,” Weiss said.

Scott Farrell of Aspen stressed another line of reasoning that many speakers concurred with. He said he currently won’t ski the Pandora’s terrain because of the avalanche risk. He urged the commissioners to allow Skico to expand so the area is controlled for avalanches and patrolled regularly. That would unlock it for more skiers and snowboarders to enjoy.

“It would be a nice added attraction,” he said.

Aspenite Dana Laughren said the excitement over adding the Pandora’s terrain is similar to opening Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands for the Aspen-area skiing community. She said the addition of Pandora’s would have “a lot of people falling in love with Aspen Mountain again.”

The Pandora’s terrain is currently accessible through a backcountry gate behind the upper Silver Queen Gondola terminal. It is a mix of intermediate and expert terrain that is within Skico’s special use permit boundary with the U.S. Forest Service, but it isn’t within Skico’s operational boundary. Therefore, the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol doesn’t sweep the terrain or undertake avalanche control.

Skico officials said significantly more skiers and snowboarders are venturing into Pandora’s now than 20 years ago. Under Pitkin County’s guidelines, Skico needs to show that a rezoning is warranted because of changing conditions.

“It’s being skied heavily like the rest of our mountain,” said David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president for planning and development. He said Skico collected data from Dec. 5, 2019 through March 6, 2020 and found between 645 and 980 sliders per month ventured into Pandora’s. That was twice the amount found by a U.S. Forest Service assessment in 1997-98.

“This area of Pandora’s is no longer backcountry or sidecountry skiing,” Corbin said. It’s time to add it to the operational boundary, perform avalanche control and patrol it to provide safe skiing for a broader range of skiers and riders, he said.

Skico contends Pandora’s would offer multiple advantages. About half of the 153 acres would be on developed ski trails while the rest would be in glades. The tree skiing would add a dimension lacking on Aspen Mountain, Corbin said.

The addition of 153 acres to the existing ski area of nearly 700 acres would also spread people out. Some skiers and riders would make laps in Pandora’s on a proposed high-speed quad chairlift. They would access more than 1,200 vertical feet of skiing with a five-minute chairlift ride. Drawing more people to the Pandora’s pod would reduce the number of skiers crowding the Ajax Express chairlift or heading down to the gondola, Corbin and several speakers said.

But the review isn’t as easy as saying yes or no to the skiing. Skico needs rezoning of 167 acres in the Pandora’s area. Currently, 35 acres are zoned Agriculture-Residential 10, which means one residence could be built per 10 acres. Another 132 acres are zoned Rural and Remote, a classification that limits development to 1,000-square-foot cabins that are off grid and have limited road improvements.

Skico wants its property in Pandora’s rezoned to Ski Recreation. Pitkin County’s planning staff recommended denying the request. The planners feel a more thorough analysis is needed in the Richmond Ridge area on the backside of Aspen Mountain before Pandora’s is considered.

“Without a planning analysis and adoption of appropriate (land use code) and zoning amendments to implement that analysis, development can be expected to creep down the Ridge into more sensitive areas,” the planning office wrote.

Aspen resident Tim Mooney said he shares the concerns of the planning department. He said he suspects Aspen Skiing Co. has a longer-range vision that hasn’t become apparent yet. He said the company has acquired other land south of Pandora’s that covers both sides of Richmond Ridge. He fears if the current rezoning is approved, the company will be back with additional rezoning requests in the future.

“They’re all about incrementally expanding into the Rural and Remote area,” Mooney contended.

Skico officials vehemently denied they have a development strategy on the backside. They said their proposal is about enhanced skiing, not residential development.

Suzanne Caskey was on the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission when Rural and Remote Zoning was established in 1994. She recently rejoined the commission but didn’t vote on Skico’s proposal. She said she was speaking on her own behalf and not the commission.

“We worked like dogs on (Rural and Remote) for two years, at least,” Caskey said, adding that it has become increasingly clear why the groundbreaking zoning was necessary to prevent development of mansions to spread into the backcountry.

“I don’t think that even a single acre of it should be changed,” she said.

Caskey noted county officials have set a goal to view all land use decisions through the lens of effects on climate change. To her, that means stopping “the stressors” that lead to climate change.

“It is time for us as a community to pause,” Caskey said. “Think back to this last summer, what we saw with traffic. It is time to stop excusing change that’s harming all of us.”

Tim Anderson of Aspen said he has skied the Pandora’s terrain for about 40 years and feels a compromise could be reached that allows skiing but eliminates a new chairlift and the need for rezoning.

“I do believe that it could be a great place to ski,” he said. “There’s a way to patrol it, control it and funnel (skiers) back to a new lift 7.”

His concern with Skico’s proposal is that rezoning a portion of Rural and Remote lands could lead to an incremental chipping away of the backcountry protection.

“I’m just very skeptical of promises that no future development will occur back there,” Anderson said. “It starts out little and turns into a landslide.”

The commissioners will resume the review Sept. 8.

See for yourself

The public comment portion of the Pitkin County commissioners’ meeting on the Pandora’s expansion lasted for about one hour. To view the comments, go to / and go to the archived videos section. Click on the Aug. 25 meeting. The public comment begins at the 5-hour, 15-minute mark.

(Editor’s note: This story was corrected to show 24 people spoke at the public hearing.)

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