Commissioners approve 3-1 expansion of Aspen Mountain

A large prairie will be among the clearings included in the Aspen Mountain Pandora expansion, which was approved by Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday. (File photo by Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times)

After spending nearly an hour on Wednesday pointing out flaws in Aspen Skiing Co.’s plan to expand the Aspen Mountain ski area to Pandora terrain, Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober voted in favor of the project.

The commissioners voted 3 to 1 to approve a rezoning required for the expansion and for an amendment to the Aspen Mountain master plan.

“I knew I was going to be the deciding vote. I’ve known that for three months, ”Jacober said just before the vote. “For me, (voting yes) was in light of a compromise.”

Earlier in the meeting, she hinted that she might oppose the project on environmental grounds.

“I don’t think we need 150 acres of expert skiing to convince the world that Aspen is the ultimate ski town,” said Jacober. “They pretty much know it. But now I think we can be leaders not only in skiing, great nightlife and great restaurants, we could be leaders until we draw a line in the sand when it comes to the environment.

Jacober decided not to draw that line a few minutes later when it came time to vote.

Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child joined with Jacober in paving the way for Skico to add 153 acres of land and a chairlift to the Pandora section on the upper east side of Aspen Mountain. Kelly McNicholas-Kury cast the dissenting vote. Commissioner Patti Clapper has recused herself from Pandora’s proposal because she has a family member who works for Skico.

McNicholas-Kury said she did not think the project justified changing the zoning designated as rural and remote, a special classification designed to preserve the hinterland.

“I still think this app doesn’t cross that bar,” she said.

Child was against Pandora’s proposal in 2019, but returned a new criticism this year.

“I support Pandora’s because there are good reasons,” he said, listing climate change adaptation as a big plus.

A steep slope covered in wildflowers opens onto Route 82 and will be part of Pandora’s expansion on Aspen Mountain. (Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times)

Pandora’s terrain has an elevation above 10,000 feet and is mainly oriented east, which helps retain snow. Child said he envisioned a day in a few decades when Elevator 1A would ball up due to the dry conditions on the low mountain. Skiers and runners will need to hop on and off the Silver Queen gondola to access the only high mountain ski terrain, he said.

“It could be totally our reality 20 years from now,” Child said.

He also supported Pandora’s because he is already within the Aspen Mountain license limit, but not yet in the active ski area.

“We’ve all been under a lot of pressure these past few days,” Child said. “No matter how we vote today, there will be people who criticize us for voting yes or no. My conscience is clear. I have no problem supporting Pandora’s now.

Poschman has always supported expansion. He was for that in 2019, when the board was deadlocked 2-2.

“I definitely support this, as I did,” Poschman said Wednesday.

He noted that some skiers lost their lives in avalanches when they chased powder into the area currently controlled or swept by the ski patrol.

“It’s a closed area so I’ve never been there,” he said. “I don’t ski in there. I will not poach this area. I would definitely (ski it) and wish it was safer.

He said there were “a lot of great skiers” in the city supporting the expansion.

A group called Friends of Pandora’s has collected more than 1,600 signatures on a petition supporting the expansion.

Poschman said the upper valley faces a lot of stress, mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout. Approving Pandora would be a “nice” gesture at a difficult time. Plus, he said, the proposal wouldn’t die if the current board rejected it.

“I’m sure if we vote no it won’t go away,” Poschman said. “It will simmer a little more and come back in a few years. “

Jacober kept the outcome in abeyance throughout the 90-minute hearing. She criticized the proposal, but indicated in a straw poll at a meeting of commissioners on October 27 that she supported the proposal. But at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, Jacober said she had changed her mind.

“I hate to tell you guys, I’ve been inundated with doubts since I was last with all of you,” she told the Skico team. She asked Skico reps why they were so relentless in their pursuit of the field.

Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the addition of Pandora would disperse people by increasing the ski terrain on Aspen Mountain by 22%. This will relieve the pressure on the existing pitch and lift of Aspen Express, he said. Skiers and runners will be able to do Pandora’s chair laps without leaving this basket on the mountain.

Debris and trees will be removed with the Pandora expansion on Aspen Mountain. This is a section of the expansion seen on August 12, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner / The Aspen Times)

About half of the new terrain will be on traditional, open ski slopes and the other half will be tree skiing through clearings – a big draw for skiers and runners alike. Adding this kind of terrain “will ensure that we can stay competitive for the long haul,” Kaplan said. “We are convinced that it is the right thing to do now.”

The last time terrain was added to Aspen Mountain was in 1985 when the Walsh Trails and adjacent trails were added.

Skico also insisted that adding high elevation terrain makes sense for Aspen as a way to adapt to climate change and escalating temperatures.

Commissioners said they were facing intense pressure on the issue. Poschman said he received a “veiled threat” about what action would be taken if he voted in favor.

Jacober said she was under intense pressure from people on both sides of the debate.

“When I looked like a no for a few weeks there, I got a lot of communications from people who wanted me to be a yes,” she said. “And then as soon as I indicated that maybe I was turning around, I was suddenly besieged by people who wanted me to vote no. It definitely skewed my take on the number of people in favor versus the number of people opposed. “

Kaplan responded by saying, “This one has a ton, a ton of support.”

Kaplan thanked the board for their vote. In previous presentations, Skico officials have said they will start cutting and cutting trees in the summer of 2022, adding the chairlift in the summer of 2023 and opening the terrain for skiing in the winter of 2023. -24.

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