War in Woody Creek
The proposed expansion of the COMPASS learning center at Woody Creek has all the accoutrements of the knock-down, drag-out fights that litter Aspen’s land-use history, and at times have torn neighborhoods apart.There’s George Stranahan, COMPASS founder and longtime Woody Creek resident, thrust into the role of developer. He is at the center of the storm over the organization’s proposal to add 48,200 square feet of new facilities – including a theater, a residential conference center, and a campus hub – at the 10-building campus on 208 acres above Woody Creek.There’s the 30-year-old institution of the Community School, the valley’s long-established alternative to public and traditional private schools for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its 1972 relocation to Woody Creek predates many of the neighborhood’s most vocal anti-development gadflies.There’s the opposition of the Woody Creek Caucus, one of the most seasoned and effective anti-growth organizations in the valley. Caucus members remain steadfast in their opposition, and some members have even called for uprooting the school and learning facility and relocating it to Cozy Point.There’s even a celebrity element. Author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a longtime friend of Stranahan’s, wrote a scathingly critical letter about the proposal to Pitkin County Manager Suzanne Konchan. After promising to “save the bulk” of his “many and voluminous” comments until a February Planning and Zoning Commission meeting on the application, Thompson wrote:”This is a dangerously flawed & aggressively misleading proposal & it is being put forward with all the good faith and candor of a fox trying to talk his way into the henhouse. They have been trying to slip it through/by/around the Woody Creek Caucus for more than a year, using tricks & guile & treachery & even outright lies to get their way – and in all that time they have flatly refused to change or alter a Single Line of their original bogus language. It has been presented, time after time, with an overweening arrogance that is shocking to most of us in the neighborhood, and we will continue to oppose it with vigor.”COMPASS is an umbrella organization that sprang from the alternative style of the Community School. It now includes the Sustainable Settings project on long-term, low-impact living; the Early Childhood Center, a day-care facility; The Roaring Fork Teacher Education Project which trains teachers; a wood shop; a ceramics studio; the Wyly Community Arts Center, which brings resident and visiting artists together with students in a mentor-apprentice relationship; and the Stepstone Center for Social Justice.”Let’s face it, COMPASS isn’t a school in the traditional sense, but it never really has been, even in the days when it was just the Community School,” says COMPASS executive director Dave Throgmorton.The current mix of programs on campus includes some exclusively for children, like the Community School, others exclusively for adults, like the Stepstone Center for Social Justice, and others that are shared by both age groups, like the n See Woody Creek wood shop and the Wyly Center. Except for the Carbondale Community School and the Stepstone Center, staff members from all of the projects currently share the facilities at the Woody Creek campus.COMPASS supporters say it’s that mix of adult and child education that provides students in the Community School, which is a charter school in the RE-1 School District, the opportunity to connect with artists, craftsmen and thinkers in ways not available to most students. The wood shop, for instance, allows local artists to practice their craft with some of the best equipment available, and in exchange for use of the facilities, they work with the students. Campus master plan In 1995, Stranahan ushered a land-use master plan for the campus through the county planning process, based on what is now an admittedly out-of-date vision for the organization. Much of what was approved in 1995 has yet to be built, including an expanded ceramics building, a second teacher dormitory, three single-family homes to be deed restricted as affordable housing, a lounge/library and five classrooms.In 1998, the COMPASS board came back to the county with a proposal to amend the 1995 plan, asking for approval of an additional 33,700 square feet (on top of the 14,500 square feet of approved but unbuilt facilities). The new proposal calls for a residential conference center with 20 beds for Stepstone, a 120-seat theater, four more single-family homes and three apartments, a mini-campus that includes a director’s residence, a dormitory and a studio for Sustainable Settings, and a campus center with offices and a cafeteria.Throgmorton, who began at COMPASS last summer, says the 1998 proposal reflects an expanded vision of the organization’s current direction, but, he adds, it is hardly a new concept. “Since the very beginning, we’ve talked not only about kindergarten through eighth grade, but adult education programs as well,” he said.Woody Creek Caucus member Jackie Lothian says that all may be well and true, but she and others in the opposition camp have a lot of questions that have been asked but not answered.”I’m not necessarily against the Stepstone Center, but I want to know what it is,” Lothian said. She’s also interested in who will be using the facilities, how many new jobs – paid and volunteer – will result, and what, if any, limits on use will be enforced.Lothian and others, including Thompson and Barbara Ornitz, insist that their questions and concerns remain unanswered, and they are suspicious about what they see as a parade of faces that show up at caucus meetings on the application. One week, they say, it’s Stranahan speaking for COMPASS, the next, it’s some of the board members, and the next, it’s the planning consultants who are working on the application. Worst-case worries Caucus members also worry about what happens if COMPASS fails, either under its own weight or because Stranahan withdraws his financial support. “Without safeguards against fiscal failure, the Woody Creek community would be facing an untenable situation: a `mini-resort,’ with 73,000 square feet of mixed-use buildings, highly visible on a rural mesa in a primarily agricultural environment,” Ornitz wrote in a letter to the county.”When the Woody Creek Caucus says we haven’t responded to their questions, it means we haven’t responded to their worst-case scenario – the school shuts down and they’re left with a little town up there,” says COMPASS board member Michael McVoy.He says the time for concessions is coming – when the application begins the review process at the county. But others aren’t so sure.But both Throgmorton and board member Virginia Newton concede that COMPASS may not have communicated its vision to its neighbors very well. They seem more willing to put things on hold, at least temporarily, to see if the caucus can’t be brought on board.”We need to bring our friends along with this plan. We believe it’s a good idea, but I think it will be a much stronger plan if we bring our neighbors along,” Newton said.Meanwhile, Stranahan finds himself facing friends and former allies on the opposite side of the negotiating table. “If it was any other developer, we would have sent him on his way long ago,” says Lothian.
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