The Pitkin Board of County Commissioners agreed to move Aspen Skiing Co.’s Pandora’s Expansion proposal onto a second reading Wednesday — but officials still weren’t entirely sold on the concept.
Commissioners Francie Jacober and Kelly McNicholas Kury agreed to pass SkiCo’s Pandora’s Expansion proposal onto a second reading, but neither were supportive of the proposal in its current form Wednesday, setting up the possibility of a future 2-2 split vote, which would effectively stall the application.
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from participating in any of the discussions or votes due to her son-in-law’s employment with SkiCo.
Prior to the vote, Jacober read aloud a prewritten statement as to why she opposed Pandora’s Expansion.
“When do we stop? When do we say enough is enough?” Jacober posed. “Aspen has enough terrain. It has enough billionaires. It has enough skiing tourists. It has enough traffic. Are we really trying to attract more people to our valley? We are full.”
Kury — who served as commissioner when the proposed Pandora’s Expansion went before the board unsuccessfully in 2019 — still wasn’t sold, herself, on SkiCo’s new application, believing it wasn’t new at all.
“The application is not substantially different from 2019 and … my opinions aren’t substantially different from 2019,” McNicholas Kury said.
Wednesday, SkiCo proposed adding a restrictive covenant to the rural and remote portion of Pandora’s terrain that would prohibit improvements in support of restaurant and bar operations, residential development and overnight lodging on the property.
“This is something we gave a lot of thought to and debated a lot internally because … we’re trying to stay competitive, and this restrictive covenant could jeopardize that,” said Mike Kaplan, SkiCo president and CEO. “If we’re serious about what we’re saying, we think we’ve got to do this and are willing to do it.”
SkiCo has requested that the BOCC rezone approximately 131 acres of terrain from its current “Rural/Remote” designation to “Ski Recreation.” SkiCo has asked for the rezoning of roughly 35 acres of land from its “Agricultural/Residential” classification to “Ski Recreation,” also to accommodate Pandora’s Expansion.
“I look back on our 75 years of being in business, and I say, ‘We’ve been excellent stewards of the land. We’ve been decent ski area operators,’” Kaplan said.
According to the county’s land use code, Rural/Remote zoning should “conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources, while allowing for limited recreational uses and limited residential development.” Ski Recreation zoning permits “downhill and cross-country skiing and other uses permitted by a federal or other public agency, such as grazing, hunting and passive recreational uses.” Ski Recreation zoning can also accommodate affordable housing, according to the county’s land use code.
The precedent set by rezoning rural and remote land to ski recreation terrain has been at the forefront of many of the commissioners’ concerns with SkiCo’s Pandora’s Expansion proposal.
“If we do this in this zone, is this the camel’s nose under the tent? Is this the horse getting out of the barn?” Commissioner Greg Poschman asked during Wednesday’s BOCC meeting. “Are we opening the floodgates for Pandora’s box, so to speak, to an uncontrolled situation?”
Currently, 36 cabins exist within the area, 31 on the west side of Richmond Ridge and five on the east side of Richmond Ridge. Twelve cabins have been constructed and one expanded since 1996 in the Rural/Remote zoned area.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the board does have the power to impose more restrictive uses on land being rezoned as part of a condition of approval. Ely was also of the opinion that one applicant’s rezoning request, like in the instance of Pandora’s Expansion, wasn’t necessarily legally binding with respect to future land-use decisions that will inevitably come before the board.
“Properties are so unique from one another, even neighboring properties,” Ely said in response to Poschman. “It’s not necessarily binding, but over time if the same decision is made, it becomes harder and harder to do something different.”
Pandora’s Expansion would add approximately 153 acres of new ski terrain to Aspen Mountain, as well as a new lift to service the expanded terrain. SkiCo has maintained that plenty of wintersport enthusiasts already ski Pandora’s powder but in an uncontrolled, unsafe manner.
“We can’t sort of just leave that hanging forever. One, there’s obviously safety concerns about it,” David Corbin, SkiCo senior vice president of planning and development, said. “It’s something that worries us. Everybody knows there have been fatalities in that area before. Leaving it as it is really doesn’t satisfy our business operations either, to be quite candid.”
SkiCo’s rezoning application for Pandora’s Expansion went before the BOCC on Aug. 25, and commissioners also took a site visit of the terrain near the top of Aspen Mountain and east of Richmond Hill Road on Sept. 1.
Wednesday, SkiCo continued its presentation before the BOCC by reminding commissioners of the “substantial public support” for Pandora’s Expansion, pointing to a petition garnering more than 1,300 signatures.
Many members of the public commented during Wednesday’s BOCC meeting, including Aspen City Councilor John Doyle, who has been a vocal opponent of Pandora’s Expansion.
“Most other communities look up to us,” Doyle said. “I think for Aspen to remain relevant in this day and age — in this time of climate crisis — I’d like to see us be the first ski resort that says we have enough. We have an embarrassment of riches here, as far as ski terrain goes.”
The second reading for Pandora’s Expansion is set for Oct. 13.