Safety at crux of rodeo stakeholder concerns about Town Park plans

Council to review special review application Monday

Kaya Williams and Anna Meyer
The Aspen Times
Kids take part in the calf scramble at the Snowmass Rodeo on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Snowmass Village.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The town of Snowmass Village could break ground on a revamp of Snowmass Town Park as early as late August after the Snowmass Rodeo season wraps up, so long as the plans make it through the regulatory review process this summer. 

As both the owner and regulator of the project, the town has the ultimate veto power over the design. Council members have already evaluated the plans for overall design elements during periodic owner’s review discussions — they voted 3-2 on July 5 to keep the process moving forward, with the two opposing members Tom Fridstein and Bob Sirkus wanting to see some loose ends tied up first — and will put on their regulator hats Monday for a public hearing on compliance with the municipal code. 

But rodeo stakeholders say the current designs still lack safety-related accommodations that would be a make-or-break issue for the viability of the rodeo, according to separate letters sent to town officials last week from the Snowmass Western Heritage Association, which produces the rodeo, and the Roaring Fork Valley Horse Council, which represents equestrian interests. 

“Ensuring the safety of the contestants and their animals along with our guests will be a threshold issue,” according to a July 11 letter from the Snowmass Western Heritage Association.

The plan for the rodeo is “incomplete and requires safety measures for contestants and their animals” — such as a designated warm-up area, “clear access” for emergency services and “adequate space for guests to move about to enjoy the venue,” the rodeo board wrote. 

Town officials have said in previous meetings that there are multiple spots for  emergency services access and details can be sorted out as an operational issue rather than a component of the design plans; rodeo stakeholders continue to advocate for clear and designated markings in the plans.

Commission Conditions

The Planning Commission voted unanimously (with one member passing on the vote) to approve a resolution recommending approval with conditions for the Town Park special review application at a July 13 meeting. The commission reviewed the plans over the course of three meetings and also conducted a site visit that was open to the public. 

The conditions included recommendations to conduct water monitoring on a routine basis, use a permeable surface for the new parking area, design the bleachers such that they can accommodate coverings in a future phase of the project, construct a permanent restroom structure near the flex field as funds become available or in a future phase, ensure access to existing horse trails and install screening for the horse pens, landscaping and decorative fencing.

The approval came despite concerns from Karin Reid Offield, the president of the Roaring Fork Valley Horse Council. 

“I am hoping and I am praying that the Horse Council has made an impact on the Planning Commission to make the right decision not to go completely forward with this current plan,” Offield said during the public comment section of the meeting. “There were things that were omitted, things that were left out… The current plan is just not quite good enough and the plan should be revised.”

The two primary concerns that Offield voiced at the planning commission were that there was no warmup space included and that the decorative fencing would prevent rodeo participants from being able to see their trailers while in the arena.

Though the addition of a condition to further investigate the possibility of a warmup space for the rodeo was considered, it was not approved. Some members disagreed on the bounds of the Planning Commission’s role, which is to review the plan according to zoning ordinance and municipal land use codes.

“I feel it’s an operational issue between the town and the rodeo,” Planning Commission member Brian Marshack said.

A July 17 letter from the Roaring Fork Valley Horse Council likewise emphasized safety concerns. The horse council represents more than 700 equestrian members, some of whom participate in competition or operations at the Snowmass Rodeo, and the nonprofit has filed multiple reports detailing their safety concerns to town officials throughout the spring and summer. 

“If the current Town Park design plans are left as is, the plan will diminish the stature of the rodeo, and the rodeo grounds will become an unsafe liability for all involved,” the July 17 horse council letter states. 

The town did ask the rodeo board if they were OK with the plans this spring, but the letter from the rodeo board states that their review of less detailed plans then was “rushed” and “did not adequately take into consideration the issues raised by the RFVHC.”

About Town Park

Over several phases, the Town Park project would add new recreational amenities and multipurpose spaces to the 22-acre Town Park and would reorient and resize the Snowmass Rodeo grounds and contestant parking.

Side-by-side comparisons of the proposed layout show that while the footprint of the grounds is larger than before, that space is redistributed and reoriented, leaving more space for spectating but less for competition and contestant parking.  

The special review process focuses on the rodeo grounds, an adjacent “flex lawn” for field sports” and the wetlands north of the rodeo. 

The public hearing scheduled Monday will focus on eight specific criteria laid out in the municipal code that largely focus on minimizing adverse impacts, providing adequate resources for the proposed use and ensuring consistency with existing town codes, plans and community character.

Town officials and Town Park planners have said throughout the Town Park review process that the plan is to continue to include the rodeo in the plans in the same capacity that it functions now. 

Andy Worline, the director of parks, recreation and trails in Snowmass Village, said in an interview on July 12 that part of the goal of the revamp “was to keep the rodeo as is, to make sure the rodeo is a centerpiece to this Town Park completion, making sure that it works for everybody,” including other park users. 

But rodeo stakeholders say that without additional safety accommodations in the plans for the Town Park revamp, the operation will not be able to continue as it has for the last five decades. 

“We can’t run a rodeo if we don’t have the contestants. … If there’s no places for the horses to warm up, contestants won’t come to the rodeo,” rodeo board member Jamie Knowlton said in a joint Zoom interview with fellow board member Jim Finn on July 14. “If they don’t come, we don’t have a rodeo. It’s that simple.”

Access to a soft-surface area for warm-up has been at the crux of the safety conversation so far. Knowlton said that some but not all contestants are able to warm up in the arena before competition, and some contestants use a grass median between Brush Creek Road and the dirt parking lot to warm up. 

The horse council has also expressed concerns about paving the contestant parking area where animals load and unload because of the impact of the hard surface and because the paved surface can become slippery when wet. 

“Asphalt for livestock and any horses and riders is dangerous, especially if it rains. Steel shoes become slippery. Unloading and loading horses becomes an accident waiting to happen,” the horse council wrote in their July 17 letter. That letter suggests using the flex lawn near the rodeo as a warm-up area, calling it a “win/win” situation; Knowlton also said in the interview that he saw that as a solution to the warm-up concerns. and