The Friends of Pandora focus on the ski opportunity; enemies stress zoning issues
Supporters of Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to add Pandora terrain to Aspen Mountain are focusing on the big ski the move would unlock. Opponents point to the dangers of tinkering with zoning.
Both views got plenty of airtime Wednesday during the Pitkin County Commissioners’ first public hearing on a Skico rezoning application that would allow the addition of 153 acres on the Upper East Side of Aspen. Mountain. Commissioners did not vote on Wednesday and will continue their consideration on September 8.
About 24 people underwent four hours of presentations before the county accepted public comment. Former Aspen Mayor Bill Stirling has spoken out in favor of expanding Pandora because, he said, it provides a clear benefit to the community. Local residents will clearly benefit from the extension of skiing to part of the mountain that is now reserved as a private hiding place for those who can hike there, he said.
Stirling presented a petition in support of the expansion of Pandora which he said was signed by 1,146 people. At the public hearing, speakers in favor of opponents of Pandora were about two to one.
Aspen’s Cliff Weiss expressed what many of the following speakers said: Aspen Mountain needs Pandora’s terrain to stay competitive in a rapidly changing ski industry. He said many stations are adding more ground. Meanwhile, nothing has been added to Aspen Mountain since the opening of the Walsh Trail in 1985.
âAjax is our flagship product and our flagship product is getting tired,â Weiss said.
Scott Farrell of Aspen pointed out another reasoning that many speakers subscribed to. He said he would not currently be skiing the Pandora terrain due to the risk of an avalanche. He urged the commissioners to allow Skico to expand so that the area is controlled against avalanches and patrolled regularly. This would unlock it for more skiers and snowboarders to enjoy.
âIt would be a nice additional attraction,â he said.
Aspenite Dana Laughren said the excitement over the addition of the Pandora field is similar to the opening of the Highland Bowl in Aspen Highlands for the Aspen area ski community. She said the addition of Pandora would have “a lot of people falling in love with Aspen Mountain again.”
Pandora’s land is currently accessible through a backcountry gate behind the upper terminal of Silver Queen Gondola. This is a mix of intermediate and expert terrain that is within the limits of Skico’s Special Use Permit with the US Forest Service, but not within Skico’s operational limits. Therefore, the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol does not sweep the terrain or undertake avalanche control.
Skico officials said many more skiers and snowboarders are venturing into Pandora’s now than 20 years ago. According to Pitkin County guidelines, Skico must demonstrate that a zoning change is warranted due to changing conditions.
âIt’s skied a lot like the rest of our mountain,â said David Corbin, Skico’s senior vice president for planning and development. He said Skico collected data from December 5, 2019 to March 6, 2020 and found between 645 and 980 cursors per month ventured into Pandora. This was double the amount found by a US Forest Service assessment in 1997-98.
âThis region of Pandora is no longer ski touring or off-piste,â Corbin said. It’s time to add it to the operational limit, perform avalanche control and patrol it to provide safe skiing for a wider range of skiers and cyclists, he said.
Skico maintains that Pandora would offer multiple benefits. About half of the 153 acres would be on developed ski trails, while the rest would be in glades. Skiing in the trees would add a dimension that Aspen Mountain lacks, Corbin said.
Adding 153 acres to the existing nearly 700-acre ski area would also scatter people. Some skiers and runners would take laps at Pandora’s on a proposed high-speed quad chairlift. They would access over 1,200 vertical feet of skiing with a five-minute chairlift ride. Attracting more people to Pandora’s capsule would reduce the number of skiers crammed onto the Ajax Express chairlift or heading for the gondola, Corbin and several speakers said.
But criticism isn’t as simple as saying yes or no to skiing. Skico needs 167 acres of rezoning in the Pandora area. Currently, 35 acres are zoned Agriculture-Residential 10, which means one residence could be built per 10 acres. Another 132 acres are zoned rural and remote, a classification that limits development to 1,000 square foot cottages that are off-grid and have limited road improvements.
Skico wants his property in Pandora to be rezoned as Ski Recreation. Pitkin County planning staff recommended denying the request. Planners believe more analysis is needed in the Richmond Ridge area at the back of Aspen Mountain before Pandora is considered.
“Without a planning analysis and the adoption of appropriate amendments (land use code) and zoning to implement this analysis, development can be expected to weave along the ridge in more sensitive areas, âthe planning office wrote.
Aspen resident Tim Mooney said he shares the planning department’s concerns. He said he suspected Aspen Skiing Co. had a longer-term view that has yet to become apparent. He said the company had acquired other land south of Pandora’s which covers both sides of Richmond Ridge. He is concerned that if the current rezoning is approved, the company will come back with more rezoning requests in the future.
“They are all aimed at gradually expanding into the rural and remote area,” Mooney argued.
Skico officials have vehemently denied having a development strategy behind them. They said their proposal is for improved skiing, not residential development.
Suzanne Caskey was on the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission when Rural and Remote Zoning was created in 1994. She recently joined the commission but did not vote on Skico’s proposal. She said she was speaking on his behalf and not on his behalf.
âWe have been working like dogs on (rural and remote) for at least two years,â said Caskey, adding that it has become increasingly clear why groundbreaking zoning was necessary to prevent the development of mansions from spreading. expand into the hinterland.
âI don’t think even a single acre should be changed,â she said.
Caskey noted that county officials have made it a goal to review all land use decisions from the perspective of climate change effects. For her, that means stopping the âstressorsâ that lead to climate change.
âIt’s time for us as a community to take a break,â said Caskey. âThink back to that last summer, what we saw with the traffic. It’s time to stop apologizing for the change that is hurting us all.
Aspen’s Tim Anderson said he has been skiing Pandora terrain for about 40 years and believes a compromise could be reached to allow skiing but eliminate a new chairlift and the need to change the zoning.
âI believe it could be a great place to ski,â he said. “There is a way to patrol it, control it and redirect (the skiers) to a new lift 7.”
His concern with Skico’s proposal is that the rezoning of part of the rural and remote lands could result in a gradual reduction in the protection of the hinterland.
âI’m just very skeptical of any promises that no future development will happen there,â Anderson said. “It starts little and turns into a landslide.”
The commissioners will resume the examination on September 8.
(Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show that 24 people spoke during the public hearing.)