The Pandora’s debate: A buffer for the backcountry
Step around the back of the top terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola and you enter what might be Pitkin County’s most unique, and interesting, land use realm. The acreage stretching out for miles past the Aspen Mountain ski area along both sides of Richmond Ridge gave birth to the rural-and-remote zoning classification, which is the most limiting residential zoning in the county. It has the feel of public land — and indeed much of it is — but the rural-and-remote zone in that area includes more than 200 privately held parcels, mainly made up of old mining claims.
Typically, the owners of those parcels, so long as they are at least 35 acres in size, can build cabins of up to 1,000 square feet, with limited allotments for sheds and other outbuildings — as long as building rights have not been taken off the property via the transferable-development-rights process. That doesn’t sound like a vehicle for runaway growth, but 27 years into the existence of rural-and-remote zoning, county officials are grappling with questions about the integrity of the zone district — a topic covered in our story this week, “More intense backside land use a sticking point for Pandora’s.” Of concern is whether existing policies are doing enough to ensure that land uses continue to protect the natural character of the environment and limit development to the most low-intensity uses associated with residential building.
The question has been called thanks to the Aspen Skiing Co.’s pending application to expand the Ajax ski area some 153 acres down the east side of Richmond Ridge. The proposal would place a new high-speed chairlift, along with new intermediate- and advanced-level ski trails, in a zone often referred to as Pandora’s. The area is currently used mostly by expert Aspen Mountain skiers, who take a short traverse behind the gondola to access the powder stash, then return to the ski area below Walsh’s run.
Developing commercial skiing on what’s now rural-and-remote land requires rezoning — a proposal that left county commissioners deadlocked in 2019 and has again split the board after two hearings in recent weeks. (Only four commissioners are deciding the application, as Patti Clapper has been recused due to a conflict of interest, namely a family member who works for SkiCo.) It’s not so much about the Pandora’s land itself, although there are concerns about the expansion’s impact on wildlife, as well as the community’s carbon footprint. Animating the debate is the contention that the proposal would eat into the buffer that allows rural-and-remote land to feel rural and remote.
The backside of the mountain, like the rest of the town, is in the midst of a real estate boom. Vacant land suitable for a 1,000-square-foot cabin just down the road from the Sundeck is for sale for almost $4 million. Applications to develop more cabins — including two just across the boundary line from the Pandora’s expansion — are pending and at least one cabin owner on the backside is advertising their property as a luxury short term rental (though they recommend hiring a backcountry guide to get there in the winter). County planning staff are indicating they may wish to see a prohibition on short-term rentals in the rural-and-remote zone.
Whether these growth indicators are influenced by the Pandora’s plan is debatable. The forces driving up the prices and desirability have been in play for a long time. But does bringing the ski area that much closer to the backcountry add more fuel to the fire? Or does making the private land encompassed in the Pandora’s application part of the ski area actually tamp down residential development, since the land could otherwise be converted into three to four cabin sites?
It’s a lot to untangle and county commissioners continued the rezoning hearing until Oct. 13 after many hours of discussion on Wednesday.
Aspen Journalism also published a story over the Labor Day weekend highlighting how emergency releases from Gunnison County’s Blue Mesa Reservoir to prop up Lake Powell’s ability to make hydropower have strained recreation at the lake. The story by Water Desk Editor Heather Sackett notes “the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change fueled drought.” The story also included the observation that a few months of impacted recreation is small potatoes, in terms of negative consequences, compared to a hydropower failure at the Glen Canyon Dam.
And as we continue Tracking the Curve — our local COVID-19 data tracking project — Data Desk Editor Laurine Lassalle’s daily posts have documented growing case counts throughout Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, as well as potential policy changes public health officials are considering to limit the harm caused by the delta variant.
One last note: This is the last Friday edition of The Roundup. We have decided it makes more sense to send the newsletter out on Tuesdays, so we will start doing that on Tuesday, Sept. 14, and every Tuesday thereafter. Our weekly data dashboard feature will also start updating on Tuesdays, instead of Fridays, beginning on Sept. 14. Thank you for reading, and supporting, Aspen Journalism.
— Curtis Wackerle, editor
More intense backside land use a sticking point for Pandora’s
By Curtis Wackerle | September 7, 2021
SkiCo officials have taken the position that broader character and use concerns on the backside should not hinder the review of their ski area proposal. County planning staffers disagree.
Blue Mesa Reservoir releases to prop up Lake Powell impacting recreation
By Heather Sackett | September 4, 2021
The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.
Tracking the Curve
By Laurine Lassalle | September 10, 2021
The county’s incidence on Sept. 7 was nine times higher than a year ago, Vance said. On Sept. 7, 2021, the incidence rate reached 253 per 100,000, while there were 28 cases per 100,000 individuals on Sept. 7, 2020.
Pitkin County getting ready to mask up with new mandate
“The hospital’s daily visits as they relate to the coronavirus also were considered cautious — the emergency department averaged more than six COVID-19 visits a day during its last seven-day reporting period through Wednesday, its respiratory evaluation center was seeing at least 10 coronavirus patients daily, and its community testing center was giving at least 16 tests a day.”
Source: aspentimes.com | Read more
Pandora’s earns critical vote but final result still unsettled
“Poschman and other commissioners expressed a desire to see Skico offer a conservation easement or extend the restrictive covenant to three other parcels Skico owns along Richmond Ridge that are outside of the Pandora’s terrain. ‘This is a big ask, but it could seal the deal for certain people,’ Child said in a not-so-subtle hint.”
Source: aspentimes.com | Read more
No clear interim housing solutions presented to concerned Centennial residents Thursday
“‘While there is no impending circumstance that necessitates Centennial’s redevelopment, Birge & Held is proposing a plan that would keep the units affordable in perpetuity as well as rebuild them with upgraded and eco-friendly construction. … The plan also includes 59 free-market units that will largely fund the entire project, the construction of which, if approved, would begin no sooner than 2024 and is estimated to take 24-30 months.’”
Source: aspendailynews.com | Read more
Drought inspires collaboration by water users
“Colorado’s water laws can make it difficult to increase in-stream flows for just the environment’s sake. This project leverages the historic power plant to ensure the water released goes to ‘beneficial use’ as defined by state water law.”
Source: soprissun.com | Read more
Three reasons the latest draft of Colorado’s congressional map may spell trouble for Lauren Boebert
“The proposed district would include all or parts of liberal-leaning Boulder, Broomfield and Larimer counties, including the cities of Boulder and Loveland, and reach across the Continental Divide into northwest Colorado to take in Rio Blanco, Moffat and Garfield counties along the Utah border.”
Source: coloradosun.com | Read more
From 4% to 45%: Energy Department lays out ambitious blueprint for solar power
“There is little historical precedent for expanding solar energy, which contributed less than 4 percent of the country’s electricity last year, as quickly as the Energy Department outlined in a new report. To achieve that growth, the country would have to double the amount of solar energy installed every year over the next four years and then double it again by 2030.”
Source: nytimes.com | Read more
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