Missouri Heights residents show opposition to Ascendigo camp plan during BOCC site visit
Site is second go-around for envisioned facility to serve autistic children
David Aguilar scans the landscape along the ridge above the Roaring Fork Valley floor where he lives and worries about the worst — another wildfire that could level his and possibly hundreds of other homes dotting the sage fields and former pastures east of Carbondale.
“I lost a house in Boulder, … lost it in an hour,” he said of the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire that destroyed 138 houses, including his in the years before the professional astronomer moved to Missouri Heights.
“So, I know how quickly those things move,” he said. “Up here, usually the winds blow directly (east). There’s just no stopping it if it happens.”
On Tuesday, as the Garfield County commissioners were on hand to get an on-the-ground peek at the 126-acre property where Ascendigo Autism Services hopes to build a summer camp and year-round activities center, the wind was gusting to about 15 mph.
“We’re lucky to have a day without a lot of wind,” Aguilar said. “When it hits 40, or 60, which it did four days ago, it’s scary. It blows continuously.”
That’s one of the main reasons he and many of his neighbors oppose Ascendigo’s plans, which would include a 6,800-square-foot base facility, an 8,500-square-foot lodge for campers, a 14,000-square-foot activity barn, an equestrian center, plus a guest cabin and caretaker unit.
It’s the second go-around for Ascendigo in seeking out a feasible site to build a permanent summer camp and activities center, instead of leasing the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley facility each summer as it does now.
In late 2018 into early 2019, Ascendigo had a contract on a 35-acre parcel off Hooks Spur Road south of the Willits area where it was considering using an existing 12,000-square-foot house and barn for its camp facility.
“It was a much smaller site and didn’t really meet our needs,” said Ascendigo President and CEO Peter Bell, who attended the Tuesday tour.
Similar neighborhood concerns regarding traffic were brewing there, as well, and the proposal never made it to formal application with Pitkin County.
“We decided to step away from the contract,” Bell said.
“It also didn’t have nearly this kind of feel to it, and I think as soon as we stepped onto this property it just had the feel of a summer camp,” he said of the decision to purchase the Missouri Heights property for the planned camp.
Added Julie Kaufman, Ascendigo’s director of development, “This property allows us to build in a much more low-density way than what we would have been able to do (at the Hooks Spur site).”
Because the camp facilities need to be specially designed in a way to be “autism-friendly,” Ascendigo founder and board Chair Sallie Bernard said the Missouri Heights location made more sense.
Lack of due diligence?
Aguilar said Ascendigo did not do its homework into finding out about the neighborhood concerns before pulling the trigger on purchasing the property last fall.
He led what he said started as about a half dozen neighbors who organized as Keep Missouri Heights Rural in opposition to the plan that’s now before the Garfield County commissioners.
They have a dedicated website with an online petition that has garnered more than 550 signatures opposing the project. An informal online survey of neighbors also found 73% to be opposed.
Aguilar and scores of other neighbors made their opinions known Tuesday with signs and informational flyers on the occasion of the commissioners’ visit.
The site visit was a precursor to the planned formal public hearing on the proposal that is slated to begin at 1 p.m. June 21, and is likely to continue the following day, if not longer.
Only the commissioners were allowed to ask questions of the applicants and county planning staff Tuesday. No public comment was allowed during the walking tour, which was audio-recorded for the official record.
Public comment will be a major part of the meeting June 21 at the Garfield County Administration Building in downtown Glenwood Springs, along with formal presentations by county staff and the applicant.
“It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s the wrong location,” said neighbor Michael Sullivan, who was carrying a sign reading, “Square peg in a round hole.”
In addition to the fire concerns, he said he’s worried about the impact on groundwater from the development, plus light pollution and an increase in traffic.
Karen Moculeski, who is a co-spokesperson for Keep Missouri Heights Rural along with Aguilar, said the Ascendigo proposal is simply not compatible with the surrounding large-lot, rural residential subdivisions, plus a few horses and other farm animals.
She and other opponents have equated it to a commercial-scale development in a residential neighborhood.
“By their representation, an average day in the summer will have 100 people here,” she said. “That just generates a ton of traffic for this one road leading up here.”
As an astronomer with a working observatory who still does educational research, Aguilar said he also worries about the impact from exterior lighting on the night sky.
Ascendigo Chief Operating Officer Dan Richardson said after the commissioners’ site visit Tuesday that the project planners have been in discussions about specific mitigations around lighting, traffic and the visual impacts of the buildings.
“In terms of concessions, we’ve been open from day one to talk about how to mitigate traffic, and how to mitigate the scale of the buildings,” he said.
Richardson said he expects much of the discussion once the public hearing commences to be around traffic, and how best to mitigate that if the project is approved.
“We’ve done a lot of brainstorming on how we can incorporate shuttles and continue to reduce traffic,” he said.
Richardson admitted he may have been “a little naïve” about the neighbor’s concerns with the summer camp plan.
“We thought, with the infrastructure in place and the approvals (for 15 houses) that were already in place, that we would be the white knight kind of coming in and saying we’re going to bring less impact than the alternative,” he said.
A few nearby residents have said they support Ascendigo’s plans and feel the impacts can be mitigated. But the broad neighborhood support Ascendigo was hoping to get didn’t materialize.
Aguilar said if Ascendigo had come in with a plan similar in scale to Windwalkers’ nearby equestrian therapy facility, the neighbors would have been fine with that.
“We would have said, absolutely, you’re in,” Aguilar said. “We absolutely would have accepted it, and they would have been part of the neighborhood.”