Public concerns are emerging with regard to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s request to rezone property on the back side of Aspen Mountain to accommodate expansion into the Pandora’s terrain.

Armed with the blessing of the U.S. Forest Service and a recommendation from Pitkin County’s Planning and Zoning Commission, SkiCo representatives have conducted presentations relating to the rezoning request and an update to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan at two meetings of the county commissioners within the last three weeks. The information is detailed in what one commissioner called a “voluminous” April 10 meeting-packet package of more than 1,500 pages; most of that material was not duplicated for last Wednesday’s meeting packet.

In the last hour of that nearly seven-hour meeting Wednesday, the county accepted comments from a few local residents, most of whom either own or manage property on Ajax. A primary issue, to them, revolves around the scope of future development on the back side of the mountain within the area that would be rezoned to the SKI-REC designation. Continued public access to roads on both sides of the mountain also appeared to be a top concern.

Commissioners have yet to voice their overall thoughts on the issues, and SkiCo still has more information to present. Commissioners continued the discussions to May 8, for the resolution on the master plan, and May 22, for the ordinance on the zoning matter, which one critic has called “the most significant up-zoning that Pitkin County has seen since the Aspen Highlands development.”

With more public hearings expected over the next couple of months, the Aspen Daily News reached out to SkiCo last week for responses to some of the preliminary questions surrounding the Pandora’s proposal. Jeff Hanle, SkiCo director of public relations, provided the answers via written format.

The proposed ordinance outlining the rezoning request seeks the transfer of 35.28 acres from the AR-10 designation to the SKI-REC zone and 131.83 acres from the Rural and Remote designation to SKI-REC, for a total of about 167 acres. The land is a mix of SkiCo and U.S. Forest Service property. SKI-REC is the zoning designation the county has created for SkiCo’s four ski areas. AR-10 pertains to agricultural-residential zoning; Rural and Remote is intended to conserve and protect the natural environment while allowing limited recreational and residential uses, or to retain undeveloped areas.

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One resident said that SKI-REC zoning allows for highly intensive uses such as “luxury cabins, duplexes, multifamily units, day-care centers, restaurants, timeshares, parking lots” and more.

To start, Hanle responded to the question of whether SkiCo is planning any significant development or other amenities besides the lift and ski trails.

Hanle said the zoning itself does not allow any use by right, “except for, oddly enough, a bus stop.” Every possible use in SKI-REC, other than a bus stop, must be described, depicted, reviewed — and approved or rejected by county commissioners — in a ski-area master plan before it may be allowed.

“Any use not specifically approved by the [Board of County Commissioners] as part of a detailed master plan is already expressly prohibited by the county’s Land Use Code,” Hanle said.

SkiCo “has only proposed new trails, glades, a lift and associated structures such as lift and patrol shacks in the Pandora’s terrain in the master plan before the BOCC,” he wrote. No other use is part of the application.

The same resident also posed whether SkiCo would be amenable to having “conditions” placed upon the zoning request to prevent future development other than the lift, trails and shacks. Commissioners asked the county attorney’s office to look into the legality of tying such conditions to the ordinance.

Hanle reiterated that under SKI-REC zoning, “any proposed land use must be specifically reviewed and approved by the BOCC under SKI-REC already.” He said the only practical effect of such “conditions” would  be to call into question the power and authority of future commissioners to hear and consider ski-area master plans and uses within the SKI-REC district.

“It seems legally questionable that the sitting board can limit the reviewing authority and power of their successors without going through the Land Use Code amendment process, but even if such action were allowable, it seems inappropriate to undermine successor boards in this manner when the code specifically gives them this review authority,” he said.

‘Access will be maintained’

Another question from last week’s meeting concerned whether SkiCo would be open to the idea of a “destination deed” that ensures year-round public access to roads on the mountain, such as Midnight Mine and Little Annie’s on the back side, that cross SkiCo land.

Hanle said the company already has stated — both to the planning commission and county commissioners — that winter and summer access across company property to and from Midnight Mine and Little Annie’s, as well as the Richmond Ridge area, will be maintained for the public “by physically and legally relocating the county’s right-of-way with appropriate transfers and deeds or by means of easements.”

Another commenter, who said he enjoys the backcountry feel of the Pandora’s area, wanted to know why the company — which already controls four separate ski areas in the Aspen area — felt it necessary to expand its Aspen Mountain terrain. The Pandora’s area currently is used by recreationalists for a less-crowded skiing and snowboarding experience.

Hanle responded that the addition of Pandora’s terrain is desirable for a variety of reasons beyond acreage alone.

“The skiing experience on Aspen Mountain will change and be enriched,” he wrote. “The new terrain offers both expert and intermediate skiing and in particular, the lower third of the terrain below Lud’s Lane [an existing part of the Aspen Mountain ski area] will offer sustained, moderate pitch, glade skiing to intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders.”

In addition, Hanle said, the northeast aspect of Pandora’s offers “a new visual experience and perspective for many guests who may not venture into Walsh’s or Hyrup’s [trails that are above Lud’s Lane] now. That same northeast aspect collects and holds mid-winter snow well.”

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The new high-speed lift out of the Pandora’s terrain will eliminate the need to hike out Lud’s Lane, Hanle said.

“It will enable repeat skiing in the pod and improve ski circulation on the upper mountain as a whole,” he wrote. “Between the trails and glades, the new mountain circulation and the different character of the terrain, guests will enjoy a fresh, interesting and enjoyable experience on Aspen Mountain.”

The expansion’s possible effects on elk migration also arose during the meeting. Hanle said the Forest Service’s environmental review revealed no evidence of elk calving within the project area. Generally, the evaluation concluded that the new operation “would not have direct, indirect or cumulative impacts on elk,” he wrote.

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, another stated concern was whether any property to be rezoned from Remote and Rural to SKI-REC falls outside of Pandora’s boundaries. Hanle said all of the land proposed to be rezoned from Rural and Remote to SKI-REC comprises ski terrain and circulation areas to and from that terrain “or provides for the county’s public access to Richmond Ridge beyond the ski area.”

The proposed amendments to the Aspen Mountain Master Plan involve changes both to the existing ski area and the Pandora’s section. The list includes the Pandora’s lift and new ski terrain; an upgrade or realignment of two existing lifts (at Shadow and Bell mountains); new snowmaking coverage on six existing trails in the upper reaches of the ski area; a new headquarters building for ski patrollers; and the reopening of Ruthie’s restaurant, which could involve renovation or rebuilding.

Other changes, according to a county memorandum, involve the construction of one or more cabins or huts in the vicinity of Ruthie’s for overnight accommodations; an expansion, remodel or redevelopment of the Buckhorn Cabin to provide an expanded shelter alternative and a food-and-beverage option for daily operations or special events; new cell-tower sites and fiber-optic lines; summer projects, including biking and hiking trails, climbing walls and an upgraded music venue; and the continuation of landscaping at the summit.

SkiCo has been looking to expand its Aspen Mountain terrain into the Pandora’s area at least since 1997, when the project was included in that year’s master plan.

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