A property owner with land bordering the proposed Pandora’s ski area expansion on the backside of Aspen Mountain is seeking to build two new 1,000-square-foot residences. One of the partners in the company that owns the land controls another backcountry cabin located farther down Richmond Ridge, which can be rented for $4,500 per night. 

Listings topping $7 million for off-the-grid — but increasingly sophisticated and luxurious — mountain cabins dot the real estate map in the “rural and remote” zone on the backside of Aspen Mountain, nestled alongside historic primitive shacks where renters and squatters have lived a lifestyle mostly unchanged since the early days of the ski area, which opened in 1946.

And according to buildout projections, dozens more new dwellings could be added on the backside of Aspen Mountain, where for 27 years, development has been kept in check by the restrictive zoning classification called rural and remote. Those rules limit homes to 1,000 square feet, on parcels no smaller than 35 acres, and are meant to “conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources” while allowing only small-scale, low-density, limited development, according to the county’s stated intent for rural and remote.

Concerns about the integrity of the rural-and-remote zone district on the backside of Aspen Mountain have emerged as the chief hurdle to Aspen Skiing Co.’s plans to build a new lift accessing the Pandora’s terrain and expanding the community’s flagship ski area for the first time in almost 40 years.

As Pitkin County commissioners prepare for the second public hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, in this second attempt since 2019 by SkiCo to see 167 acres rezoned to accommodate the ski area expansion, company officials have taken the position that broader character and use concerns related to the backside-of-Ajax realm should not hinder the county’s review of their ski area proposal. 

County planning staffers disagree and are recommending that commissioners deny the rezoning application, at least until the county has time to complete a master plan covering Richmond Ridge, with the aim of ensuring that land use is consistent with the rural-and-remote zone district.

“Absent a planning analysis, the broader uncertainty of future uses on the ridge will persist without any definite expectation of limiting development to a level that is appropriate for the area,” says the planning department’s staff memo on the Pandora’s proposal, which would see 132 acres of rural-and-remote land, and 35 acres zoned AR-10, rezoned to SKI-REC, which is the zoning overlaying Aspen Mountain and other local ski areas. “Without a planning analysis and adoption of appropriate code and zoning amendments to implement that analysis, development can be expected to creep down the ridge into more-sensitive areas.”

The emergence of short-term rentals on the backside — as well as new, more-powerful snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles changing the transportation and recreation landscape — has given rise to the greater concern about the need to look more broadly at this area, according to planning office staff.

The county enacted rural-and-remote zoning in 1994, amid growing concern about large homes working their way up to Richmond Ridge. One property preceding the new rules, barely a mile down Midnight Mine Road from the Sundeck, was built out to 3,500 square feet; along with a guest house, the property is currently listed for sale at $18.5 million. The project and the threat of future similar ones inspired the county to enact the historic downzoning. 

“I think we zoned it like we meant it,” Cindy Houben, planning office director and who was involved in the creation of rural and remote, said last week. “What has changed around us is how the uses are used. Who would have contemplated VRBOing or short-term renting these types of residential backcountry cabins?” There is a concern that changes in intensity regarding residential use and recreation have “flipped it all on its head,” she said.

At the Aug. 25 commissioners meeting concerning the rezoning application, SkiCo executives said their application is consistent with existing land uses on the parcel in question, where Aspen Mountain skiers regularly venture out of bounds to explore the sidecountry, before returning to the ski area at Walsh’s run. They asked the commissioners to consider their application on its merits, without getting mired in anxiety surrounding uses on other privately held properties in the area.

“Much of the concern (expressed by county planning staff) really concerns uses on Richmond Ridge, on properties that are beyond our property, beyond our operating boundary … and are uses that are disassociated from ours,” David Corbin, SkiCo’s senior vice president of planning and development, told commissioners. “We do commercial skiing — lift-operated commercial skiing. What I heard before are concerns about members of the public using private snow machines going to and from private residential cabins in areas beyond our boundaries. 

“The concerns I heard before, we are not a contributor to,” Corbin added, noting that rezoning the terrain of the Pandora’s as requested would remove residential-development potential in favor of expanding the ski area. “We may be an attractor to those uses by other people, but we are not proposing the uses that are of concern.”

Mak Keeling, senior project planner for Aspen Skiing Co., stands near where the top terminal of a new Pandora’s chairlift would be located on Richmond Ridge, during a site visit with Pitkin County commissioners, staff and members of the public on Sept. 1, 2021. SkiCo is proposing to rezone 132 acres currently zoned rural and remote, including the site shown here, to SKI-REC, to accommodate the expansion of Aspen Mountain ski area. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

New cabins would sit near the Pandora’s boundary 

The majority of the land that would be rezoned to make way for Pandora’s was owned for decades by the Loushin brothers. Over time, they were bought out by SkiCo and Jeffrey Shoaf of Aspen, an unrelated party who works in real estate.

About eight years ago, SkiCo and Shoaf agreed to a partition of the Loushin property, with SkiCo getting roughly 60% of the acreage and Shoaf getting about 40%. The dividing line of the partition represents what would become the new ski area boundary. 

Shoaf’s parcel, held by Valley View Ajax LLC, retains its rural-and-remote zoning and contains an existing cabin dating to at least the 1960s. Shoaf, along with Bridger Smith of Aspen, a partner with Shoaf in Valley View Ajax, received county approval to subdivide the parcel into two lots, each of which is eligible for a new 1,000-square-foot cabin. Both cabins would be located directly below the new Pandora’s terrain near a water feature known as Loushin’s Pond on the Valley View Ajax property.

Valley View Ajax in May submitted an application to Pitkin County for special review to establish setbacks for one of the new cabins on the parcel containing the existing cabin. The application also seeks to maintain the existing 500-square-foot cabin, which would be deed restricted as affordable housing under the “resident occupied” category.

The application notes that, as a result of an agreement struck as part of the partition process, the two new cabins, like the existing cabin, would be served with potable water and electric power provided via facilities SkiCo maintains as part of its mountain operations.

SkiCo owns water rights tied to Loushin’s Pond, which collects water from a number of nearby springs, and those rights have long supplied water for the Sundeck and Bonnie’s restaurants on Aspen Mountain. The company has infrastructure on the Valley View Ajax property, including a collection box and pumping system, to deliver that water to its on-mountain facilities. That collection-and-pumping system is supplied with electric power by a transmission line running to the site from the ski area.

Shoaf’s property has its own water rights tied to the Loushin Ditch, with that water delivered to the existing cabin via the SkiCo collection box. The cabin also has electricity provided by the SkiCo transmission line. Both new cabins would also be connected to water and power via the SkiCo facilities, and in 2015, SkiCo agreed to install new infrastructure benefiting Shoaf’s property, including a 2,000-gallon storage tank, while Shoaf agreed to give the company the access it needs to maintain its infrastructure.

“This provides a legal and physical water supply for all three eventual cabins on parcels 1 and 2,” says the Valley View Ajax application.

The Valley View Ajax property is accessed by Loushin Road, which travels east from the existing ski area boundary below Walsh’s run. Securing that access involved litigation with the county, which eventually granted easements through its property traversed by the road to Valley View Ajax. The Forest Service also issued Valley View Ajax a special-use permit for the road, where a locked gate blocks public access just beyond the ski area boundary. The road is not maintained in winter. 

Other than the agreements related to water and utilities, SkiCo and Shoaf said there is no connection between the two entities as it relates to the use of the prospective new cabins.

“They’re doing their thing, I am doing mine,” said Shoaf, who acknowledged that the Pandora’s expansion could be a benefit to the new cabins. But there is also a cost, he said, in terms of reduced privacy since skiers will inevitably pass through the property.

SkiCo said in a statement that it “has no interest in Valley View Ajax, its properties or their use beyond water rights which (SkiCo) holds with respect to spring and well waters arising in and around Loushin’s Pond.”

Mitch Haas, a planning consultant who submitted the Valley View Ajax application, said the Valley View Ajax cabin-development plan has been in the works since well before the current Pandora’s proposal was brought forward. The development applications would have been filed years ago, Haas said, if it weren’t for the long process to secure access to the site on Loushin Road. 

“This was happening even if Pandora’s never happened,” Haas said.

A map showing the 167-acre area to the east of the existing Aspen Mountain ski area boundary that would be rezoned from rural and remote and AR-10 to SKI-REC under plans proposed by Aspen Skiing Co. The map also shows property boundaries as well as ownership. Representatives of the Valley View Ajax parcel, adjacent to the Aspen Skiing Co.-owned land that would be rezoned for Pandora’s, are in the process of obtaining development approvals to build two new 1,000-square-foot cabins on the parcel, as allowed under the rules of the rural-and-remote zone district. Credit: Courtesy Pitkin County and Aspen Skiing Co.

The Smith Cabin and short-term rentals 

Smith, who owns an interest in the Valley View Ajax parcel, and his brother, Colter, also own a cabin located about 4 miles past the Sundeck, on Richmond Ridge. The Smith Cabin has its own Instagram feed, which describes the site as a “backcountry luxury rental property,” and its own website, which advertises the cabin as available to rent for $4,500 per night during summer and $9,500 per night during winter. An “event rate,” of $14,400 for two nights, three days and up to 120 guests, is also published. The materials depict a pristine setting, stunning views, access to recreation and interior comforts — such as a full kitchen and indoor plumbing — that resemble a mixture of backcountry hut and high-end hotel suite.

“Book the Smith Cabin for your wedding, next friend-and-family gathering, corporate retreat, or backcountry weekend excursion,” the website says. “Access in the summer is by four-wheel-drive vehicle only. In the winter, you can access the cabin via cross-country ski from the Aspen Mountain Sundeck, hire a snowmobile, or Aspen Expedition guide.”

Neither of the Smiths responded to requests for comment. 

There is no prohibition on short-term rentals in the rural-and-remote zone, or anywhere else in unincorporated Pitkin County. But that may change in the future. County commissioners have held three work sessions so far this year to discuss enacting short-term rental regulations, using new powers granted to counties to manage such lodging activity by a 2020 state law. So far, the board has supported going forward with a program requiring all short-term rentals to obtain a license, with conditions tied to that license related to occupancy and other visitor-management policies.

More-restrictive regulations — such as whether to limit rentals to properties that are used as a primary residence by the owner and “whether to establish exclusion zones where rental activity cannot occur” — are still up for consideration

Ellen Sassano, a long-range planner working on the county staff, said most of the issues she hears about pertaining to short-term rentals are coming from other areas of the county, primarily Redstone but also Snowmass Creek and Woody Creek. There has been little public feedback to date on short-term rentals in the rural-and-remote zone district, and county staff could not cite any properties, other than the Smith Cabin, that are known to be engaging in short-term rentals in that zone district. 

However, “that is something we certainly want to look at, whether short-term rental is appropriate in the rural-and-remote zone district,” Sassano said. “My gut is telling me it’s not, but we’ll need to have the discussion.” 

Criteria for the rural-and-remote zone district include the “absence of traditional utility service districts” and “limited availability, or absence of rapid, traditional Pitkin County emergency services.” Houben, the planning office director, said she is worried that the isolated setting of many rural-and-remote parcels, and oftentimes difficult travel conditions required for access, could spell trouble for tourists who may not have a great understanding of backcountry ethics. 

Shoaf, of Valley View Ajax, said he plans to keep his cabin in the family. “This will be an heirloom property that I don’t envision ever selling,” he said. 

Bridger Smith is responsible for developing the second new cabin, Shoaf said.

Haas said he has no knowledge of whether either of the planned new cabins near the Pandora’s would be made available as short-term rentals, but he emphasized that their physical dimensions and uses will be established based on what is allowed in the land-use code, which he described as “very limiting” in the rural-and-remote zone district.

A statement from SkiCo noted that the company “does not own any resort cabins in rural-and-remote zoning. Nor has ASC seen or taken a position on any contemplated county regulations or revisions to the land-use code limiting short-term rentals in rural-and-remote zoning.” The statement also said the company believes any short-term-rental regulations “should be consistently applied regardless of ownership and operations (personal, corporate, LLC, etc.).” 

Pitkin County commissioners, staff and members of the public explore a portion of the Little Annie Basin during a site visit on Sept. 1, 2021. The site visit gave commissioners a chance to see parcels, located on the other side of Richmond Ridge from the area shown in this photo, that would become part of the ski area under the Pandora’s rezoning plan, as well as other areas on the backside of Aspen Mountain. County staff are concerned that approving Pandora’s without updating the master plans guiding development on the ridge as a whole could compromise the integrity of the rural-and-remote zone district. Credit: Curtis Wackerle/Aspen Journalism

Existing dwellings, with the potential for more

The planning analysis that county staffers say needs to happen before the Pandora’s rezoning is approved  is underway.

The East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan process has produced an existing-conditions report, released in March, that includes a buildout analysis that projects how much new development is likely to occur in areas covered by the plan, as well as a draft master plan, published in August. The county is gathering public feedback on the plan before it could receive final approval.

The draft master plan holds out as an objective developing regulations that support clear transitions in land uses between the Aspen Mountain ski area and the rural-and-remote zone.

As an action item, the plan suggests limiting any rezoning of rural-and-remote lands to SKI-REC only to areas “that are clearly compatible with and do not change or erode the character of the rural-and-remote zone.” The plan also includes as a recommendation for discussion the development of  “provisions to prohibit the use of residential properties as primarily commercial, short-term rental properties.”

The planning-area boundary of the East of Aspen plan includes the top of Richmond Ridge and the east side of the ridge, where the Pandora’s lift would be built. The buildout analysis for rural-and-remote lands in the area found an existing inventory of just six dwelling units, with the likely potential for 11 more. (County staff amended the number of existing dwellings to five.) But that isn’t the whole picture. Most of the privately held parcels on the backside of Aspen Mountain are accessed off of Midnight Mine and Little Annie roads, and those areas are covered by the Castle Creek Caucus Master Plan. A buildout analysis conducted in 2018 as part of the Castle Creek plan, which has not yet been adopted, found 34 existing dwellings in the rural-and-remote zone (staff amended that estimate to 31), with the likely potential for 34 more units.

The projection for likely new units takes into account land that will probably be conserved via the transferable development rights (TDR) process, parcels that would be combined and subdivision restrictions. 

The pace of development over the years in the area has been slow. According to assistant planning office director Suzanne Wolff, of the 36 existing rural-and-remote dwellings on the backside, 12 have been built since rural-and-remote regulations took effect. There are seven existing approvals for cabins that haven’t been built, she added.

Pitkin County has also seen an uptick in interest in acquiring TDRs as an incentive for preserving land, given the recent unprecedented sales prices for TDRs. In June, one of the certificates, which allows other developers to “land” additional square footage on approved new structures, sold for $1.05 million, a few weeks after three TDRs sold for $850,000 each.

This map shows the various neighborhood planning areas that are being studied as part of the East of Aspen/Independence Pass Master Plan update process. The map shows the sites where conty staff believe it is likely that 11 new rural-and-remote cabins could be built in the future.

Resort cabins were included, then removed, from 2018 Ajax master plan

When SkiCo updated its Aspen Mountain Master Plan in 2018, which was the first step in proposing the Pandora’s expansion and other on-mountain improvements, the document referenced a desire to build overnight huts on the front side of the mountain, as part of a strategy to offer guests more ancillary activities to complement a traditional ski vacation.

The huts, which the document said could be planned for the area around a refurbished Ruthie’s Restaurant or the Buckhorn Cabin, “are intended to offer guests who may not have the proper equipment or sufficient stamina to utilize other backcountry hut systems, a similar on-mountain, overnight experience,” according to the initial draft of the mountain master plan.

While SKI-REC zoning allows for mountain resort cabins pursuant to the adoption of a master plan, Pitkin County commissioners were not in favor of the concept and the notion was removed from the document in 2019.

“With that withdrawal, overnight cabins are not currently contemplated on the front side of Aspen Mountain,” SkiCo said in a statement. “ (Aspen Skiing Co.) also has no current plans to offer any backcountry-cabin accommodations on the back side of Aspen Mountain, regardless of property ownership.”

Marcella Larsen, an opponent of the Pandora’s rezoning plan whose family owns property on Richmond Ridge, said that SkiCo, as a developer of ski areas and associated amenities, plays a “long game.” 

“They will be back, they always will. They play a very long game and they play it well,” said Larsen, whose land on the ridge carries a development right for a new cabin which has not been exercised (she has also donated to Aspen Journalism in the past). “I don’t think we should be upset by it. … Sometimes people look at it like SkiCo is their best friend— they’re not, they are just doing what they do.” 

She added that she sees the Pandora’s proposal as an intrusion into the backcountry by the commercial recreation industry. 

In March 2019, an entity connected to the Crown family of Chicago, which owns SkiCo, and at least one other partner identified as Sam Walton (a donor to Aspen Journalism via the Catena Foundation), purchased 163 acres on the backside of the mountain for $8.15 million, according to a 2019 report by The Aspen Times. The purchased properties are central to the SkiCo’s Powder Tours operation, which offers guests a guided, snowcat-powered, backcountry-skiing experience. The properties include what is known as the Summit Parcel on the top of the ridge, which is home to a 250-square-foot cabin where Powder Tours guests eat lunch, as well as west-facing slopes in Little Annie Basin that offer prime skiing terrain.

“The Crown family, together with others … made the purchase to help ensure that the back side of Aspen remains used generally in a manner consistent with historic use, which includes ASC’s use,” Rana Dershowitz, SkiCo’s chief legal officer and senior vice president of real estate, said in the Times report. “I can also confirm that ASC’s goal has been to protect its Powder Tours operations for the long term.”

Although development potential had been removed from the Little Annie slopes before the sale via the TDR process, the Summit Parcel carries the development right for one new cabin, the Times reported — either 750 square feet if the lunch cabin remains, or 1,000 square feet if the lunch cabin is removed.

Though nearby, the properties purchased by the Crown-connected entity are distinct in their ownership and location from the parcels that would be rezoned as part of the Pandora’s expansion. 

In comments to the board of county commissioners at the Aug. 25 meeting, SkiCo CEO Mike Kaplan offered the company’s position that the Pandora’s changes amount to a downzoning. That is based on the theoretical potential for up to seven new dwellings on the lands currently zoned rural and remote and AR-10 — three to four cabins in the privately held rural-and-remote zone and three homes in AR-10, if the company is able to convert the AR-10-zoned land currently owned by the Forest Service to private use. 

Although residential, lodging and commercial uses are allowed with additional review under SKI-REC zoning, the plan for Pandora’s comes with the condition that anything other than facilities directly related to lift operated skiing would be prohibited on the land.

If the Pandora’s project is denied, Kaplan said the company would be forced to consider developing those parcels “in a way that would cater to a different clientele that is more exclusive, more private, more restrictive.”

Kaplan added: “I shudder at the idea of that, it goes against my grain, but that’s what I have to think about.”

Even with the Pandora’s approval, SkiCo would still own land near the top of Aspen Mountain that would retain rural-and-remote zoning and potential development rights. Wolff, the planning office assistant director, said sterilizing potential development off those parcels could be part of an agreement crafted through the rezoning process.

SkiCo’s statement noted that whether it would ever consider building cabins on any rural-and-remote parcels “is an open question and exactly the dilemma Mike (Kaplan) previously tried to point out to the county commissioners.” 

The statement added: “We want to pursue skiing in Pandora’s, not residential development.”

This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of The Aspen Times.

Curtis Wackerle is the editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Connie Harvey Environment Desk. Curtis has also served as editor, managing editor, and reporter...