After more than two years and 80 public meetings, the plan that will guide the Aspen airport for the next two decades won initial approval from the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.
Despite reservations about how the airport master plan could affect riparian areas near Owl Creek, increase traffic on the creek’s namesake road and impact a historic ranch on the property, among other concerns, the massive project passed by a 4-1 vote. The plan will go before the county board on Dec. 5 for final approval and, if it passes, then on to the Federal Aviation Administration for review.
The plan sets aside space for a $121 million new terminal of up to 80,000 square feet, a new fixed-based operation along Owl Creek Road and a 750-space underground parking garage.
“We’re excited to be here,” said Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Director Jim Elwood. “It’s been a long path to this point.”
The master plan process has been an attempt to gauge what future pressures the airport will see, he said.
An aviation activity forecast presented to the board predicts that annual enplanements, or the number of passengers boarding an aircraft, will rise from an estimated 229,984 this year to 250,452 in 2017, an increase of about 9 percent.
The airport, which Pitkin County owns, already has “very undersized facilities,” consultant Tim Malloy told the commissioners. “This project provides options for the community about how it functions in the future.”
Elwood said the goal of getting the master plan passed is to get the whole design done initially to ensure the new terminal remains functional “for a very, very long time.” After the project is designed, the community can choose the sections it wants to develop based on need, he said.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield, who cast the lone vote against the master plan, said one aspect he opposes is parking. Besides the parking garage, there could be an additional 550 spaces above ground.
“It’s unreasonable to me to spend $45 million on parking for the community when we really prefer to deincentivize driving,” he said. “I can’t buy this community building $45 million worth of parking.”
From a financial perspective, consultant Stephen Horton said the plan is conservative and reasonable, an assessment with which he said the county’s financial advisory board agreed.
Funding for various projects will come mostly from federal and state grants, Horton said. The plan also includes revenue from a potential second fixed-base operation (FBO), which is tasked with providing support services for private, non-commercial flights like fueling, hangar and tie-down operations, and maintenance.
Because of the bureaucratic processes attached to the federal and county regulations, a master plan was devised in anticipation of another FBO operator approaching the airport and requesting that it set up a separate service for private aircraft.
The main question is whether county and airport officials are reserving the right kinds of space to meet the community’s needs 20 years from now, Elwood said.
Because of those unknowns the master plan needs to be flexible, he said.
Among those uses would be 22,000 square feet for 30 tie-down spaces for airplanes on the airport’s west side. Also on the west side, the county planning and zoning commission said it had concerns that building a second FBO in that area could increase traffic on Owl Creek Road, said Commissioner Rachel Richards.
The current FBO terminal would be demolished under the master plan and relocated elsewhere on the east side. Building another FBO, in addition to the current facility, on the east side, isn’t possible because of FAA concerns about congestion, efficiency and safety involving taxiway and runway incursions, another consultant said in August.
Richards said she also was worried that a 100-foot setback from Owl Creek for airport operations isn’t enough. She also noted that county planners said that structures from an old ranch on airport property may qualify for the National Register of Historic Places.
And while officials have decreed that the new public terminal should not make an “architectural statement,” Richards said she wants to ensure that designers do not take that to the letter and construct an ugly building.
The projects that do go forward would all have to go through design review and environmental analysis, have funding requirements sussed out, and get approvals from planning and zoning and the commissioners, Elwood said. He added that it’s unclear if the ranch structures hold enough significance to qualify for the national register, something that will be studied further.
Those review factors weren’t enough to sway Hatfield, who noted the airport currently serves 90 “based” aircraft, or planes that remain in Aspen for the majority of the year. In 2027 that number is expected to increase to 107.
“We’re going to develop the west side [FBO] for 17 additional aircraft?” he asked, adding that county planners have said such a project conflicts with the Aspen Area Community Plan. “I don’t see it.”
He said there’s simply no need for an FBO near Owl Creek Road, a sentiment he said he has heard repeatedly from residents.
But the other commissioners were in favor of the master plan — as long as Richards’ concerns are addressed both in the plan and the resolution to adopt it. Staff was directed to do that before the plan goes to final reading next month.
“I am in favor of this because mainly I view it as place-setting,” said Commissioner Rob Ittner. “There are multiple possibilities for decisions in the future.”
Commissioner George Newman likewise said he supported the master plan, calling it the beginning of the design process. As for the concerns expressed by Richards and Hatfield, he said the county will be “having these conversations for some time to come.”
And Commissioner Michael Owsley said the plan aligns with a community that expects perfection.
“There are hesitations on all parts of the plan that will be dealt with in the future,” he said.