Though a straw vote on Oct. 27 indicated 3-1 in favor of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposed Pandora’s expansion, there was a little drama at Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioners’ meeting during the official vote.
Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober wrestled with her decision and asked SkiCo’s representatives why they were in a hurry to add new ski terrain to the back side of Aspen Mountain when there is plenty of space on the company’s four mountains for winter recreation. In the end, she sided with commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child to support the rezoning that will allow the Pandora’s development to proceed. Kelly McNicholas Kury was the lone vote against it.
Jacober questioned some of the arguments in favor of opening up the Pandora’s area to skiers and snowboarders, including “fire mitigation” and “climate adaptation.” SkiCo’s plan includes the removal of more than 3,000 trees; and the company contends it is planning for the future of high-elevation recreation given that climate change is expected to affect snowfall at lower elevations of ski areas.
“Why is SkiCo so attached to doing this since [the 1990s] when you first thought about it?” she asked SkiCo President and CEO Mike Kaplan. “Back then, we didn’t even have the term fire mitigation, we didn’t have a fire season.
“… Also, we’re talking about climate adaptation. I don’t believe that’s the primary reason for this, then or now. It might become that in the near future, but certainly when you first conceived of Pandora’s, it had nothing to do with the climate, and nobody talked about high-altitude skiing. We didn’t know it was going to be so much warmer and all of that,” Jacober continued.
She suggested that it didn’t make financial sense to open the new ski terrain, basing her opinion partly on SkiCo’s own statements that Pandora’s won’t be a big revenue-producer.
“So what is it? Why do you want this so much? It’s not going to bring in more customers; it’s going to cost you more than you’re going to get from it. I don’t get it,” Jacober said.
Kaplan said though he was with the company, he wasn’t directly involved in the discussions surrounding Pandora’s in the late 1990s. He said the area has always been located within the company’s permit area with the U.S. National Forest.
“Our climate awareness and the whole issue around carbon emissions and climate change was just starting around then,” Kaplan said. “I would submit that we learned a lot since then and it is indeed — as evidenced by the start of the season here, today — what we’ve been watching and experiencing on the mountain. It’s very much a climate adaptation improvement and strategy. It sincerely is about that.”
Kaplan said the company is feeling the pressure of congested areas on Aspen Mountain, and that the new Pandora’s terrain will alleviate some of that.
“To spread people out and improve the skier experience. Yes, that’s what it’s about. To make us more resilient to climate change. Yes, that’s what this is about. And to make sure that we can remain competitive over the long term,” he said.
Pandora’s expansion will open up approximately 153 acres of new ski terrain near the top of Aspen Mountain and east of Richmond Hill Road. A new ski lift and ski patrol cabin also will service the new winter terrain.
At the Oct. 27 meeting, in an attempt to quell future building concerns on Aspen Mountain, SkiCo offered a restrictive covenant for the rural and remote properties within Pandora’s area and on Richmond Ridge. With exceptions for ski-related facilities like Pandora’s lift and ski patrol shelter, the restrictive covenant prohibits restaurant and bar operations, residential development, overnight lodging, alpine coasters and other “building improvements and recreational infrastructure.”
SkiCo’s application asked the BOCC to rezone approximately 131 acres of land from “Rural-Remote” to “Ski Recreation” in order to accommodate Pandora’s.
Child, who did not support Pandora’s application when it unsuccessfully went before the BOCC in 2019, reiterated on Wednesday that his concerns over the rezoning had been eased by SkiCo’s latest efforts like the restrictive covenant.
Although she was in the majority on Oct. 27 indicating support for the expansion, Jacober still expressed concern at the meeting three weeks ago about the precedent rezoning rural and remote land might set, as well as Pandora’s environmental implications.
While she recognized SkiCo’s many environmental initiatives on Wednesday, Jacober also commented, “It does seem weird to be cutting down 3,200 trees right now.”
By: Andre Salvail I The Aspen Daily News I November 17, 2021