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Pitco weighs avalanches

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A house in the path of potential avalanches sparked a debate over building a driveway on Shadow Mountain at a meeting of the Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday.

The meeting also gave audience members the opportunity to tell the commissioners how they feel about any development at all on the mountain.

The developer of the Little Cloud subdivision has a permit to build an access road to three properties on Shadow Mountain. But a homeowner just below the proposed road is appealing the permit, saying the construction may pose a substantial avalanche hazard to his home.

Shadow Mountain is the western-most segment of Aspen Mountain that separates Aspen from the Castle Creek Valley. Many in the surrounding neighborhood have recently voiced strong opposition to any further developments on the hillside.

The application for the four lots on Shadow Mountain, known as the Little Cloud development, was approved in 1990 by the county commissioners. A home was built at the foot of the mountain and purchased by Terry Taylor, who continues to live there part-time with his family.

Taylor’s attorney, Matthew Ferguson, told the commissioners that when the county approved the subdivision in 1990, studies of avalanches and rockfall dangers in the area were insufficient.

“There has never been a study of geological patterns in that area – avalanches, rockslides, etc. The dangers have been identified, but anyone can identify those dangers by looking up at the hill,” Ferguson said.

He said he knows of an Aspen resident who witnessed an avalanche in the 1960s on the hill, and evidence of snowsliding on “West Aspen Mountain” from the Aspen Historical Society’s photo archives.

Ferguson’s argument seemed to convince at least one of the commissioners: Commissioner Dorothea Farris said the subdivision, by today’s standards, would “never have gotten past the first 30 seconds” of a permitting process.

But Commissioner Mick Ireland noted that repealing the permit to build in the area would be a dangerous precedent to set.

“Overturning that opens a huge can of worms,” he said. “We’d have to start looking at applications after the fact, and I don’t know if we want to go there.”

Lawyers for Thomas Lewis, the project’s developer, told the commissioners it is Taylor’s responsibility to retrofit his house so that it will not be severely impacted by an avalanche.

“It’s no secret that this area of Shadow Mountain is susceptible to rockslides and avalanches. It wasn’t simply swept under the rug – it was discussed,” said attorney Curtis Sanders.

He said the engineer’s suggestions for how to build the home were ignored when it was built.

After spending three hours listening to the debate, the county commissioners voted unanimously to table the issue until June 11. In the meantime, they directed county staff to gather information about the effects the driveway and development would have on the hillside, including avalanche danger and wildlife preservation.

They will also make a visit to the site before their decision.

Members of the Friends of Shadow Mountain, a group opposed to development on the hillside, took the opportunity to voice their concerns. Helen Palmer first brought up avalanche concerns, saying there isn’t enough information available about the dangers building on the hill could create.

“Between man-made work and the works of God there’s a lot going on there,” Palmer said. “I worry about what will happen if the slope is disturbed – will the upper parts come with it? It’s a gorgeous place, I love it and want it to stay the way it is, but there’s a lot going on and I want to be sure no one is going to get hurt.”

Former Aspen Mayor Rachel Richards told the commissioners she supports the efforts of the Friends of Shadow Mountain.

“I’ve never seen an area so desperately in need of a joint master plan effort before any action is taken,” she said, adding that the domino effect could lead to ongoing development in the area. “This is time to pull back, slow down and make sure nothing goes wrong.”

Commissioner Ireland said he supports taking time to find out if community members can raise money to purchase the lots to preserve them as open space, perhaps working with the city’s open space and trails board. But he warned that Pitkin County does not have the financial wherewithal to “ride to the rescue.”

Aspen resident John Doremus said he would like to see a community effort to buy two of the lots, while Terry Taylor could purchase the third.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]


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