Little Annie is rural and remote, but will it stay that way?

Paul Andersen
Aspen Journalism
Small cabins dot Richmond Ridge and Little Annie Basin on the backside of Aspen Mountain. Rural and Remote zoning in Pitkin County, which limits cabin size to 1,000 square feet, has been in place for 20 years as a means of maintaining a rural buffer between the urban core of Aspen and the backcountry of the White River National Forest.
EcoFlight photo |

A recent upscale wedding on the back of Aspen Mountain did more than send caravans of trucks up Little Annie Road and leave a scar in the meadow where Little Annie Basin opens to spectacular mountain vistas. That wedding breached a backcountry buffer to Aspen’s thrumming urban boundary known as “rural and remote.”

Pitkin County’s rural and remote zone district was adopted as part of the county land-use code in 1994, primarily as an effort to preserve the Little Annie area.

“It became clear in the early 1990s that if we weren’t careful, Little Annie’s could soon become another Red Mountain, with 15,000-square-foot homes,” said Cindy Houben, the county’s community development director. “It took 16 public hearings to get the rural and remote legislation passed. Little Annie was the test case.”

Today, Little Annie is home to a sprinkling of “mountain hermits” living in small cabins. They like privacy and quiet over the commotion of urban life in the valley floor.

A longtime Little Annie resident, who requested anonymity to stay low-key, thrives on his “Thoreau-back” way of Walden living.

“I’m off the grid, with no running water and only solar electricity, yet Aspen is only 10 miles away for work and food,” the resident said. “It’s a very primitive life that requires hard work carrying water from my spring and chopping firewood.”

But a lavish wedding on private property on June 14 pierced that bucolic lifestyle. The 27,000 square feet of scaffolding and platforms that came with the wedding blew right through an assumed sense of scale and proportion in the Little Annie neighborhood.

But even before the wedding, the basin has seen its share of upscale activities as the semi-backcountry area became a resort amenity for celebrities and tycoons whose rural and remote cabins include granite countertops and private snowcat access.

Land of riches

This year is the not the first time that people going big have gone into Little Annie’s.

One of the first wagon trains tied to the discovery of silver entered the upper Roaring Fork River Valley and the Little Annie area in June 1880, when Aspen was a mere tent camp in the wilderness.

Mining claims were laid out helter-skelter in Little Annie — which takes its name from a claim — as prospectors scrambled for fortunes. The Mining Law of 1872 gave the newcomers the chance to seize federal land and mineral rights as part of a government effort to settle the frontier West.

The original intent of the law, however, was not to produce resort cabins and lavish second homes. It was to develop silver mines. But after the silver crash, many patented mining claims aged into legitimate real estate in the Aspen market.

The modern land rush started with Waddy Catchings in 1959, according to Aspen land planner Glenn Horn.

“He put together mining claims totaling 880 acres and tried to start a ski area on Little Annie,” said Horn, who has lived in the Little Annie area for 29 years. “Waddy formed one subdivision in Little Annie, gave up his dream and then sold it all to Dave Farney. It was the classic dreams and dilemmas.”

After buying out Catchings in 1976, Farney enlisted a group of local supporters that included Bil Dunaway, famed publisher of The Aspen Times, and formed the Little Annie Ski Corp.

Farney had big plans for chairlifts on both sides of Richmond Ridge. The east side of the ridge is mainly Forest Service land, while the west side, including Hurricane Gulch and Little Annie Basin, is mainly private land.

The Little Annie Ski Area had an $8 million budget and included a 19,000-foot-long, six-passenger gondola originating on Ute Avenue and climbing to a point beyond the Sundeck restaurant at the top of Richmond Ridge, which borders Little Annie Basin to the east.

The gondola would have taken 28 minutes to reach the topmost lift station with a capacity of 2,250 passengers per hour. From there, skiers could choose from a variety of lifts and runs on 700 groomed acres.

A 1,200-seat restaurant, a 500-seat cafeteria, meeting facilities, performance venues and other summit facilities would make the ski area unique for its views of Highland Ridge, the Mount Hayden massif, the headwaters of Difficult Creek and the Sawatch Range.

The Little Annie Ski Area would have created the most European-like ski-area design in Aspen, promoters said, reflecting the original vision of Aspen ski pioneer Andre Roch.

In the end, the project proved too big for the community to swallow. Add in the rising costs of environmental and social mitigation, and the project also was unaffordable for its backers.

Farney eventually settled with investors by dividing the land holdings among them, including many old mining claims.

The homes arise

The first real sign that the next wave of change was coming was in the 1980s with the construction of a 7,500-square-foot home in Little Annie Basin.

This was followed by a 3,500-square-foot home near Picnic Point.

Houben said that the county Planning Commission at the time recognized the need to curtail large homes in areas of limited county services and to create an effective backcountry buffer.

During preliminary hearings, the rural and remote zoning legislation intending to limit home size to 300-square-foot cabins was created.

“Stony Davis, who owned land there, came in and told us the square footage should be higher,” Houben said. “We compromised and made it 1,000 square feet per cabin.”

The zoning exercise also led to the creation of transferable development rights, which allow owners of downsized backcountry properties to sell certain development rights to owners of property in already urbanized areas, typically to build larger homes.

The rural and remote zone was applied beyond the Little Annie area into Capitol Creek, Snowmass Creek and the Fryingpan Valley, targeting locales confined by reduced public services and limited access.

Guidelines regarding living in the rural and remote zone stipulate that “it is important to have realistic expectations when moving from an urban to a mountainous rural area.

“Vacation spots that are idyllic in the summer months may be snowbound and inaccessible to cars and trucks during the winter. A second home location that appears lush when snow-covered during the ski season may be dry and dusty during the heat of summer.”

There also is no mail service, no curbside pickup of trash or recycled materials, no emergency services close by, no local school-bus routes and limited accessibility to health care services.

“As you look for a place to make a new home,” the guidelines suggest, “you should not only consider the natural environment, but the private and public services that you feel are essential to your way of life.”

County planning goals for rural areas include “preservation of agricultural/ranch lands and open space; conservation of natural resources, including wildlife habitat, scenic quality, water quality and quantity, and air quality; and protection of historic resources.”

For many Little Annie residents, these are exactly the criteria they’re still looking for as a conscious lifestyle choice.

Pete Stouffer, who has lived and worked in the Little Annie area for 25 years, thinks rural and remote zoning has largely been successful as a planning tool if not as a firm shield against Aspen’s growth.

“It’s been very instrumental in preserving the natural beauty of the place,” Stouffer said. “From a physical standpoint, it’s done its job very well.”

On the other hand, Aspen continues to thrive and spill over into Little Annie Basin.

“Like so many places around Aspen, Little Annie is coming to be loved to death,” Stouffer said. “There is more and more pressure on the place because there are more people. There is a lot more traffic, a lot more recreation and commercial impacts. Nothing will stay the same, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s one of the things about being in proximity to Aspen.”

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