Pitkin County’s elected officials agreed on Tuesday to have the government cover the planning fees associated with Mountain Rescue Aspen’s proposed 13,000-square-foot new facility on Highway 82 where Planted Earth is located.
The fees, which are estimated to cost $11,412 for the county’s community development department to review the land-use application, will be paid for by the sheriff’s office. It’s anticipated that the Pitkin County commissioners will make a supplemental appropriation from the general fund to the sheriff to cover those fees.
Sheriff Joe DiSalvo made the request on behalf of MRA, an all-volunteer organization that serves as an arm of the sheriff’s office for backcountry rescue.
“It’s a nonprofit and works solely on donations,” he told the commissioners.
DiSalvo also requested that the cost of the building permit be covered but commissioners decided to keep that expenditure separate since one elected official objected to grouping them together.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield said he doesn’t support paying for the building permit, especially without having reviewed the proposal.
“All of a sudden when I hear 13,000 square feet, regardless of how valuable [MRA is], that’s huge,” he said. “It makes me step back a bit.”
Hatfield also said he was concerned about setting a precedent by having the county pay the costs associated with a land-use development.
County manager Jon Peacock said when the one-time supplemental appropriation is presented to the board, there will be a justification made explaining the unique relationship MRA has with the sheriff’s office, and how it clearly meets the core values of the organization.
“I think that’s a pretty clear path,” he said. “MRA is certainly fulfilling a duty that would otherwise fall on the county and sheriff’s office.”
Commissioners Michael Owsley and Rob Ittner were supportive of the appropriation; commissioners Rachel Richards and George Newman did not attend the meeting.
DiSalvo noted that the city of Aspen donates the property and the cabin on Main Street that MRA currently operates out of, and the county covers the maintenance costs of the organization’s vehicles.
The building permit fee is based on the what the construction costs of the building would be, which MRA member Cavanaugh O’Leary estimated to be between $2 and $2.5 million.
The building permit could cost up to 10 percent of construction value, DiSalvo said after the meeting.
The issue of whether the county will cover the building permit fee will be decided later, after MRA has submitted its plans and commissioners have voted on the land-use decision.
MRA officials have design plans nearly finished and are planning to submit their application this month. Charles Cunniffe Architects and Stan Clauson & Associates have been hired by MRA to do the architecture and land-use work, respectively.
MRA must also get approval from Pitkin County for the land to be rezoned to accommodate a public institution.
MRA is under contract to purchase the land where Planted Earth is located on a 1-acre parcel on Highway 82 across from the airport. The deal is expected to close in November, land owner Bill Hawkins told the Aspen Daily News last month. Planted Earth, a garden center and nursery, will close in November.
Since its inception in 1965, MRA has operated out of a roughly 3,500-square-foot cabin on Main Street. MRA has outgrown its small headquarters and is now able to build a new facility largely because of a $1.5 million grant given last year to the organization from Oklahoma resident Lynda Cameron, who was rescued by a MRA team after her father’s plane crashed in the Capitol Creek Valley during a snowstorm on Nov. 27, 1977. Her father, C.B. Cameron, was killed in the crash; Lynda and four others, including her mother, brother and the pilot, were rescued.
To pay for the rest of the facility’s costs, the organization will dip into its reserves, set aside specifically for new headquarters. A capital campaign is now underway to help fundraise and generate philanthropic contributions to the cause.
Jeff Edelson, operations director for MRA, said a garage will encompass more than 6,000 square feet, so the organization can store its equipment, which includes three rescue vehicles, six snowmobiles, five all-terrain vehicles and the trailers that carry them, plus a lot of gear used in backcountry missions.
As it stands now, those vehicles and equipment are stored at MRA members’ homes, local streets, the Forest Service’s parking lot near the S-curves and on the Zupancis property next to the courthouse. The cabin also has become too small for larger operations and trainings, MRA representatives said.
The new operational headquarters for the MRA team will house a 50- to 60-person training space; a command and control room; locker rooms; a kitchen; a couple of small sleep rooms designed for members who need rest after coming out of the field in the middle of the night and for responders providing mutual aid from outside jurisdictions. There also will be a one-bedroom apartment for an on-site manager.