The work of five committees tasked with developing a plan for the future of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport continues, with one of the groups issuing a recommendation last week to proceed with discussions about terminal improvements — and to slow down the process for air-side improvements until more data is available on potential impacts to the community.
At Wednesday’s joint meeting of all the ASE Vision committees at the Aspen Meadows’ Doerr-Hosier Center, members of the Community Character Committee spoke about their report’s conclusion that terminal planning be “prioritized.” But in trying to gauge the impacts of a runway expansion — a project deemed necessary by expansion supporters so that a new generation of commercial aircraft with a wider wingspan can be accommodated — “the group felt hampered by the absence of baseline data within areas of community concern.”
Those areas of concern, as noted by the committee, including air quality, noise levels, vehicle trips and light pollution. The committee recommended “fast-track data collection” to develop such baselines, and then proceeding with air-side planning only after the impacts, good and bad, are discussed.
Earlier this year, members of all five committees, which include more than 120 people, developed “consensus principles” to help steer the process. Those principles include reducing overall airport emissions by 30 percent, reducing the facility’s noise levels by 30 percent and accommodating limited growth in commercial enplanements — the number of people boarding a plane in Aspen — to the target of less than 1 percent annually.
But as character committee member Suzanne Caskey asked rhetorically as she commented Wednesday on the group’s work, “Thirty percent of what?”
Her committee was tasked with defining “the big picture role of the the airport” in the community. She said that on numerous occasions, the committee asked for data that would help them to guide their recommendation on air-side improvements.
But, she said, that information did not come.
“We won’t know whether we’ve met any of the [factors for success in the airport’s redevelopment] until we know where we’re at now,” Caskey said.
She and Pitkin County Community Development Director Cindy Houben, who also was on the character committee, spoke of the difficulties of the group’s task.
“Community character — how do you get your arms around that?” Houben asked, noting that the diverse group had a lot of different perspectives on the issue.
Caskey said, while the committee’s conclusions reflect a consensus, it wasn’t easy getting there. “Saying that it’s a disparate group doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she said. Members pulled and tugged, and eventually came together, Caskey said.
At the meeting’s start, Caskey provided a narrative about the nature of “community,” providing a sharp counterpoint to those who would simply push the economic benefits that may result from expansion of the local air-transportation facility, Colorado’s third busiest.
She quoted a line from the 1993 Aspen Area Community Plan and said it stood out to those who served on the character committee. It states, “To build character and a sense of community is far more difficult than to erode it.”
“The connection of people to a place is a form of social capital, perhaps the single most important factor in whether a real community exists in a place,” Caskey said. “Bluntly, we make money on our unique character and environment. People pay to come here and enjoy it and bask in it. Maintaining character makes money.”
Thus, extra value must be placed on those things that make Aspen special, she suggested.
“It’s profitable to protect the goose that provides those golden eggs,” Caskey said. “What’s good for the community is what’s good for the airport. It is a community airport.”
Another member of the committee said that discussions surrounding air-side expansion “caused significant anxiety and concern” among his colleagues.
“The potential yet unknown effects of larger capacity aircraft, both commercial and [general aviation], on the character of Pitkin County and surrounding areas, was paralyzing to some of us,” he said.
Generally, the committee wants the other four committees to filter their discussions and conclusions through the “community character lens.”
“We have one chance to get this project right,” the character committee member said.
Local resident Scott Writer, seeking clarification on the committee’s findings, asked if the members had reached an agreement on whether to expand the airport’s runways.
There was not a “yes or no” consensus, Houben said, which led the committee to list 10 “success factors” for airport redevelopment that the other groups should consider.
As defined by the committee, those areas for success include an emphasis on “safety in the air and on the ground”; ensuring air-side community character, such as encouraging the use of next-generation regional aircraft that are as close as possible to those in current use that are consistent with community character; being adaptable and flexible for the present and the future; being environmentally responsible; reflecting the local culture and its values; ensuring economic vitality, but not letting the airport “be a driver of the economy”; promoting design excellence; promoting efficiency; preserving the local quality of life; and providing convenient, reliable and frequent ground transportation.
To the question of the lack of baseline data on emissions, noise and lighting that the committee highlighted, County Manager Jon Peacock noted that the ASE Vision’s Technical Committee is conducting research on those issues and others. The Technical Committee has yet to release its final report and plans to meet a few more times this month.