Planning officials for the city of Aspen and Pitkin County have given administrative approval to a land-use application from Aspen Skiing Co. to build a new high-speed quad this summer on the Tiehack side of the Buttermilk Mountain ski area.
The administrative approvals from both the city and the county means that the land-use application from SkiCo will not have to be reviewed by either the Aspen City Council or the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. That will save the company time. But it also means there will no public hearing on the proposed new lift and related construction work.
The new Tiehack Express lift will replace two existing fixed-grip lifts, including the Upper Tiehack lift that was installed in 1969. The $7 million project also includes re-grading the summit of Buttermilk and building a new ski patrol headquarters building.
“It was consistent with the Buttermilk master plan,” said Michael Kraemer, a planner with Pitkin County, about SkiCo’s land-use application to the county. “If there had been a discrepancy with the master plan, it would have gone to the board of county commissioners.”
Kraemer said Lance Clark, the county’s assistant director of community development, signed-off on the SkiCo’s land-use application about two weeks ago and an administrative decision document was recorded with the county clerk on May 31. (A revised version of the decision is to be recorded today, due to a mistake about the height of the upper lift terminal, Kraemer said.)
The ski area master plan that the county is relying on to make its administrative decision dates back to 1985, according to Kraemer.
The majority of the Buttermilk ski area is inside Pitkin County and on Forest Service land, but much of the lower portion of the mountain is on private land and inside the city’s boundary.
The Forest Service approved the new Tiehack lift in 2001, but SkiCo still needed approvals from both the city and the county to proceed with construction this summer.
At the city, Community Development Director Chris Bendon signed a development order for the lift project on May 29.
“It is a pretty straightforward application,” said Jessica Garrow, the city planner who reviewed the application from SkiCo.
The city’s review found SkiCo’s request to be “an insubstantial PUD amendment” to the Maroon Creek Club’s “planned urban development” authorization. The club owns most of the land around the base area of Tiehack, although SkiCo owns a 35-acre parcel directly at the Tiehack base area where the lift sits.
The city’s administrative sign-off also includes permission from the city’s parks department to cut down 50 trees on private property on the skier’s right of the Eagle Hill run, just above the Tiehack base area. The trees, which include a mix of aspen, Douglas fir, spruce and gambel oak trees, are in the path of the new lift.
The city’s forester, Chris Forman, approved the tree-cutting plan submitted by SkiCo.
“Extensive work by Aspen Skiing Co. has been done, and is ongoing, for the future health of the forest surrounding the City of Aspen,” Forman wrote in a memo. “For this reason, as well as the comprehensive restoration plan for the new lift line and terminus disturbances, the trees requested for removal in this permit application will be granted.”
Forman also said that not all of the trees to be removed were healthy. He said many of the 29 aspen trees to be cut were diseased and weak.
The new lift requires a completely different alignment from the Lower Tiehack lift and a slightly different alignment from the Upper Tiehack lift. The new lift will cross two parcels of land belonging to the Maroon Creek Club Association. An aerial easement was granted by the association to SkiCo for the lift to cross its parcels, but no towers can be placed on the land, according Garrow, the city planner.
The unloading terminal of the new lift will be about 5 yards closer to the Summit Express as the existing unloading terminal of the Upper Tiehack lift. The summit area between the two lifts will be re-graded and lowered by about 12 feet. The dirt from the summit will be used by SkiCo to try and fill the dip in the Tom’s Thumb trail that connects the top of the West Buttermilk lift to the Cliffhouse and the trails on Tiehack and Main Buttermilk.
SkiCo is already at work preparing to install the new lift. The chairs from the old lifts have been taken off the cables and are now stacked at the main Buttermilk base area. The company is using heavy equipment to remove snow from the summit area. The decking has been removed from the Upper Tiehack unloading platform. And the timber in the lift alignment on Forest Service property, which is inside Pitkin County, has been cut and dragged over the snow with oversight from the Forest Service.
“We’re just trying to tee things up so we can move forward as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Hanle, SkiCo’s director of public relations about the ongoing work.
Hanle said the company had not yet begun moving dirt at the summit, as it is aware that it must first obtain an earthmoving permit from Pitkin County as a condition of its administrative approval. Kraemer said the county was prepared to issue the earthmoving permit today, that the county’s building department was still reviewing SkiCo’s building permit application, and that the work done to date by SkiCo did not require a county permit.
As part of the project, SkiCo also has permission from the county and the Forest Service to remove the existing 1,450- square-foot ski patrol headquarters building that sits between the top of the Upper Tiehack lift and the Summit Express lift. A new two-story patrol building, at 2,050 square feet, is to be built closer to the Cliffhouse restaurant, out of the way of skiers and snowboarders getting off the two lifts at the summit.
“The whole area where the ski patrol building is will be flattened out,” said Jim Stark, a winter ranger with the U.S. Forest Service based in Aspen.
The Forest Service has approved the location and footprint of the new patrol building, but is still reviewing the final design of the building with SkiCo officials, according to Stark.
The new lift, which is being built and installed by the Leitner-Poma company of Grand Junction, will have the same carrying capacity as the current lift – 1,200 passengers an hour. Quad chairlifts typically carry more people than that – the Summit Express lift at Buttermilk carries 1,800 people per hour – but SkiCo planners are not looking to increase capacity on the lightly skied Tiehack area.
Instead, the goal is to replace the antiquated Upper Tiehack lift and to decrease the ride time from a total of 15 minutes on the two existing lifts down to seven minutes on the new lift, which will have a vertical rise of 1,663 feet.
Given the speed of the new lift, and the desire to keep the capacity the same, the chairs on the new Tiehack Express lift will spaced far apart on the cable and the interval between each chair on the loading ramp will be 12 seconds long.
The 125-space parking lot at the base of Tiehack will not be changed as part of the lift project. The parking lot, which is free to park in, is owned by the Maroon Creek Club Master Association. As part of its county approvals, the club is required to keep the lot open to the public except during ski races held on Tiehack, when traffic is managed by SkiCo and the Aspen Valley Ski Club.
The county and the city also required an easement be granted to SkiCo from the Maroon Creek Club Master Association to allow the lift cross its property just above the base area. The association provided the easement in February.