Pandora’s earns critical vote but final result still unsettled
PitCo commissioners vote 4-0 to advance the discussion to 2nd round
The Pitkin County commissioners voted 4-0 Wednesday night to grant the first of two approvals needed for the expansion of Aspen Mountain ski area into the Pandora’s terrain, but the issue is far from settled.
Commissioner Greg Poschman expressed solid support for Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal while commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury expressed strong reservations.
Commissioners Francie Jacober and Steve Child indicated it would take further concessions by Skico to earn their support for final approval. Commissioner Patti Clapper recused herself because of a conflict of interest. He son-in-law works for Skico.
Skico needs three votes in the second reading Oct. 13 to win approval.
Skico wants to add 153 acres of expert and intermediate terrain on the high-elevation, east- and northeast-facing slopes on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. The U.S. Forest Service has already approved the plan. Skico needs Pitkin County to approve rezoning of 167 acres from Rural and Remote zoning and Agriculture-Residential 10 acres to Ski Recreation. County officials have been reluctant to tamper with Rural and Remote Zoning, which was created in 1994 and later expanded to prevent development of large homes in the backcountry. Development is limited to 1,000-square-foot cabin in the Rural and Remote Zone.
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Skico officials pledged during a six-hour meeting Wednesday to place a restrictive covenant on their land that would forever prohibit uses beyond the chairlift, ski trails, a ski patrol hut and bathroom along with associated utilities. Skico won’t seek approval of a restaurant, overnight lodging or residential uses in Pandora’s.
McNicholas Kury credited Skico officials for volunteering to restrict development, but she noted the county could have achieved the same goal through conditions.
“I’m not sure it’s going to be enough for me,” said McNicholas Kury, who opposed the terrain expansion in a prior review in 2019. She said Skico’s plan hasn’t changed since 2019 and neither has her opinion.
McNicholas Kury said she is particularly concerned about Pandora’s eating into the buffer between developed areas and relatively untouched backcountry. Pandora’s will place more skiers and snowboarders into an area that currently sees a lower level of use.
“I hear the community. I hear the desire (for new ski terrain), but it’s also coming at a time when I’m hearing so much about how our community is out of balance,” she said. “More activity, more recreation, more resort. It’s not leading to a thriving community.”
Poschman said approving Pandora’s was the “right decision for a ski town.” He also supported the proposal in 2019.
Poschman said he also has concerns about protecting Richmond Ridge on the backside of Aspen Mountain but feels Skico can be a partner in achieving that goal.
“I would love it if we could all partner on this public asset,” he said.
Poschman and other commissioners expressed a desire to see Skico offer a conservation easement or extend the restrictive covenant to three other parcels Skico owns along Richmond Ridge that are outside of the Pandora’s terrain.
“This is a big ask, but it could seal the deal for certain people,” Child said in a not-so-subtle hint. He opposed the Pandora’s expansion two years ago.
Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said company executives and ownership would discuss the possibility of expanding the restrictive covenant to lands it owns outside of Pandora’s.
Child also said he wants conditions prohibiting Skico from further expansion of Aspen Mountain ski area. He is especially concerned about it moving farther downslope to the east, toward North Star Nature Preserve.
“I would want to add that Pandora’s cannot expand downhill any further,” he said.
Child also pressed Skico officials on environmental accountability. He wants to include a condition on second reading that Skico must come up with a major environmental project “somewhere in the world” to offset the carbon footprint of the Pandora’s expansion.
Jacober’s position was the hardest to gauge. She read an impassioned speech that outlined her love for skiing and credited Skico for accomplishments in the industry. But she also discounted Skico officials’ claim that the Pandora’s expansion is necessary to keep the ski area competitive.
“I know the Skico is at the heart of the economy here, reaching all the way to Parachute and Paonia. But I don’t think that expansion onto Richmond Ridge is going to make or break Aspen Skiing Company,” Jacober said. “I don’t think skiers all over the world are going to say, ‘Oh, there’s new terrain on Aspen Mountain. Let’s go there to ski over Chamonix or Whistler or Vail.’
“There is no shortage of terrain to ski in this valley,” Jacober continued.
While Aspen Mountain hasn’t expanded since the addition of the Walsh’s trail in 1985, Aspen Highlands has added Highland Bowl and Deep Temerity while Snowmass has regularly added terrain.
Like McNicholas Kury, Jacober expressed concern about how rezoning property out of Rural and Remote could set a precedent and trigger unexpected requests.
“When do we say enough is enough?” Jacober asked. She wasn’t in office when Pandora’s was considered in 2019.
Supporters of the expansion dominated the public hearing once again Wednesday, as they did two weeks ago in an earlier hearing. Bill Stirling, a steering committee member of an organization called Friends of Pandora’s, submitted a petition signed by 1,455 supporters. Roughly 12 people spoke to urge the commissioners to approve the proposal Wednesday while six were opposed.
“We are a ski town. Pandora’s makes us a better ski town. I ask you to approve,” said Greg Lewis, a former NBC Sports commentator who noted he first skied Aspen Mountain in 1955 as a child.
John Doyle, an Aspen City Councilman who was speaking on his own behalf, offered a different view.
“I’d like to see us become the first resort to say we have enough,” Doyle said. “Be the first ski resort to say let’s back off, let’s take care of the environment.”
Jacober said her decision wouldn’t be swayed by skiers who say they want the thrill of an additional 153 acres.
“Aspen has enough terrain. It has enough billionaires. It has enough tourists. It has enough traffic,” Jacober said. “Are we really trying to attract more people to our valley? We are full. We don’t have the infrastructure to support more tourists.”
She questioned if the valley could give up another 153 acres of fragile environment.
“It is incumbent on Aspen, one of the wealthiest towns in the world, to be the standard bearer for a better world,” Jacober said. “I find it hard to believe that cutting down trees, invading wildlife habitat and making a few more runs will make a better world.”
But Jacober left the door open for supporting Pandora’s. She said Skico’s willingness to consider sterilizing the development potential on additional lands outside of Pandora’s was the “caveat” to her position.
“I’m not ready to say a hard ‘no,’” she said.
The commissioners voted to grant first reading approval, but that doesn’t bind their vote in second reading. Skico has 34 days to try to sweeten the pot enough to convince two commissioners to join Poschman in approving Pandora’s.
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