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Outfitter protests permit bill

Jeremy Heiman

Pitkin County may change the way it issues permits to recreational outfitters as the result of a complaint from Dick Jackson of Aspen Paragliding.

Jackson went before the county commissioners Tuesday to protest an itemized bill for about $3,800 for a permit to operate his paragliding business. Much of the billing was for time the county’s planning staff spent in discussion of where, when and if Jackson’s tandem paragliders should be allowed to land in the county’s North Star Nature Preserve. The use of North Star by commercial recreational operations became a major issue in drafting a master plan for the preserve.

In the end, county officials agreed that flat fees should be adopted for outfitters’ permit renewals, for perhaps the same $1,570 currently charged as a deposit with applications. No official action was taken.

Cindy Houben, the county’s planning director, noted that, in the past, the commissioners had directed staffers to bill applicants for county staff hours necessary to process their applications. That includes time staffers spend in public meetings on such applications.

But the North Star management plan meetings last year and early this year drew a great number of comments from the public, with speakers lining up both for and against commercial uses such as Jackson’s.

“No one predicted that when we went into this that North Star was going to blow up in our faces,” said Commissioner Leslie Lamont.

As it is, Houben said, the county’s general fund has been picking up 30 percent of the the cost of reviewing applications by county staff.

“At the end of the day, development is not paying its own way,” Houben said.

Aspen Paragliding was forced to go through a two-step review process, first before the county Planning and Zoning Commission, then before the county commissioners, to receive its permit.

Jackson told the commissioners he was concerned that eventually, the county would send all guide and outfitter businesses through the two-step ordeal. “I have a hard time thinking that that’s justifiable,” Jackson said.

He said he was disturbed by the prospect that every small guide service might have to spend an extra $800 just to go before the county planning and zoning board.

He also argued that if an operation has a Forest Service permit, it is already required to have liability insurance and safety measures in place. He questioned whether it’s appropriate for outfitters to have to get permits from two government agencies.

Commissioners told Jackson there are several reasons that the county has to require commercial recreation services to get county permits. The U.S. Forest Service was putting pressure on the county to regulate such businesses as Western Adventures, a snowmobile tour business operated by Howard Vagneur, several years ago, Lamont explained.

Commissioner Mick Ireland noted that county government ought to be able to have some oversight over recreational operations within its boundaries, and not leave such decisions exclusively to the federal government.

“I don’t want Scott McInnis to be able to decide that it’s appropriate to allow an operation with 4,000 mountain bikes on the back side of Aspen Mountain,” Ireland said.

Houben added that some coordination should exist between the county and the Forest Service on how both commercial recreation and independent recreation should be managed in the county.

“That’s why we’ve been developing things like the Richmond Ridge planning process,” she said. In that series of meetings, the county and the Forest Service hammered out numerous management compromises which ultimately found their way into the proposed management plan for the White River National Forest.

Commissioners suggested that the planning staff back off on Jackson’s bill and charge more of the expenses from his application to the county’s general fund.

Commissioner Patti Clapper called for a one-step process for all outfitter permits. Ireland called for a flat fee for existing outfitters who don’t propose expansion. But Ireland said he wants to see a two-step review for new and expanding operations.

Commission Chairwoman Shellie Roy Harper cautioned that the reason county government has gotten involved in more things and gotten bigger in recent years is that people have demanded it.

“Increasingly, people who live in the county are asking the county to manage things,” she said.


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