Ajax backside

An area of the backside of Aspen Mountain off Little Annie Road is pictured. Critics of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposed expansion plan have expressed concern about the potential increase in traffic along the road and the effects upon the rural character of the surrounding area.

Aspen Skiing Co.’s push to rezone the back side of Aspen Mountain to accommodate its Pandora’s expansion plan returns to Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday following a seven-week hiatus in discussions on the matter.

The rezoning ordinance proposes to transfer 35.28 acres of property zoned as AR-10 (agricultural-residential) and 131.83 acres zoned as Rural and Remote to the SKI-REC classification, which would allow SkiCo to develop the area with a lift, runs and gladed areas. The Pandora’s area, popular among backcountry skiers and snowboarders, is a mix of SkiCo and U.S. Forest Service property, and lies just east of the top of the Silver Queen Gondola and the Sundeck.

The Board of County Commissioners already has held numerous meetings this year on the rezoning topic as well as a related resolution to update the Aspen Mountain master plan. On June 26, commissioners approved the ordinance on first reading by a 2-1 vote. Greg Poschman and George Newman supported the ordinance, although Poschman voiced a few reservations, while Steve Child opposed it. 

Patti Clapper has abstained from all matters relating to the issue because her son-in-law is a SkiCo employee who works on Aspen Mountain. Kelly McNicholas Kury was unable to attend the meeting following the birth of her second child the day before.

Wednesday’s gathering of commissioners is a special meeting, starting at 11 a.m., which will begin with a discussion on airport parking rates. An updated SkiCo presentation to address concerns voiced previously by commissioners and others will follow, along with more public comments, but a final vote on the rezoning question is not expected. Community Development department staff have recommended that the Pandora’s and Aspen Mountain issues be continued to commissioners’ next regular meeting on Aug. 28.

According to a memorandum prepared for the meeting, SkiCo representatives, led by David Corbin, senior vice president of planning and development, will present updated information on snowmaking, tree removals, use of the Sundeck and effects on elk habitat. The memo summarizes the company’s responses to concerns about those issues and more, including whether the 167 acres of zoning change would represent an “upzoning” that’s out of line with the character of the mountain’s backside.  

One of SkiCo’s points is that changes in conditions on Aspen Mountain justify rezoning. Recreational use by the public has increased in the Pandora’s area over the last 20 years, with the terrain becoming a de facto ski area.

Skiers have been seeking more terrain variety, faster lift service and improved circulation around the mountain. The Pandora’s expansion can accommodate those requests, SkiCo says in one section of the memo.

“Terrain, lift, and ski circulation improvements will benefit the public’s use and the community’s resort economy,” SkiCo states.

As to the “upzoning” claim, SkiCo argues that under the county land-use code, the SKI-REC designation is considered a “rural” district.

“Ski permit areas and Pandora’s, in particular, include mostly open terrain, meadows and forests in very natural settings, not residences and other improvements associated with urban areas,” the company says. 

In addition, SkiCo has agreed to zoning conditions formulated by County Attorney John Ely that would eliminate luxury cabins, residential development and other potentially impactful buildings in the area to be rezoned, “preserving rural character,” the company adds.

The conditions to which SkiCo agreed limit the rezoned area to “Alpine and Nordic skiing and riding, construction and operation of ski lifts, limited grading and earth moving associated with the establishment and construction of lift towers and terminals,” according to a June memorandum to commissioners from Ely. 

The conditional rezoning also allows “establishment and use of ski trails, limited timbering and tree removal, the construction of limited-access roads and access ways to facilitate lift construction and the establishment of a ski-patrol facility.”

Since the last meeting on June 26, county staff have received several letters against SkiCo’s plan, or various aspects of it.

Local resident John Doyle wrote that “it is hard for me to believe” that SkiCo’s request to expand into the Pandora’s area and update the Aspen Mountain master plan is under consideration. He cited numerous newspaper articles regarding the effects of development on climate change. 

“The master plan requires more water, more electricity, plans to scrape and replace several perfectly functional buildings, [and involves] the loss of wildlife habitat and the removal of over 105 acres of trees,” Doyle said. “And for what? The increased revenue for the ski company.”

He added that the four ski areas operated by SkiCo in the upper Roaring Fork Valley are more than enough.

“It is widely acknowledged that we have some of the shortest lift lines in the state. Do we really need to increase Aspen Mountain’s skiable area by 23 percent? Please think about the environment we are leaving for our children,” Doyle said.

Meanwhile, resident Julie Wille wrote that her primary concern was the impact of removing trees on the forest ecosystem.

“The acreage of trees is a concern, but how can the removal of trees be considered without the rest of the ecosystem that depend on an intact forest?” she asks. “The ecosystem supports a number of species including squirrels, snowshoe hares, elk, deer, bear, mountain lions and possibly lynx, not to mention a variety of mushrooms, wildflowers and other plants. If we lose the trees, we lose the ecosystem.”

Wille added that she understands Aspen is a “ski town.” She also suggested that she believes SkiCo has been an industry leader in its actions to offset climate change and care for the natural environment.

“In my opinion, the best thing that our community can do to combat climate change and ‘protect our winters’ is to leave an old growth forest intact,” she said. “I propose that we choose to do less harm. 

“The reasons stated for the proposed expansion are less than convincing. In my opinion, the number of skiers on Aspen Mountain [does] not warrant this kind of development. It is a rare day that there is a lift line unless, of course, it is a powder day. If we build roads, ski runs, chairlifts and snowmaking infrastructure, we will cause irreparable damage. If climate change is the issue, I say to protect the climate by keeping the forest intact. …At some point in the future, there may be a need for this expansion, but I don’t think that time is now.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.