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SkiCo urges Pitkin County to approve Pandora's expansion, but final vote remains uncertain

Aspen Skiing Company
This aerial view of Aspen Mountain, taken in an undated photo, shows the proposed Pandora's expansion area highlighted in red. The terrain in the Pandora's is on the east side of Richmond Ridge and accessible from the top of the Aspen Mountain ski area.

The Pitkin County commissioners on Oct. 27 again reviewed Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to expand the Aspen Mountain ski area into the side-country terrain known as the Pandora's.

At the meeting, SkiCo executives gave presentations about their vision for the ski terrain, which sits high on the east side of Richmond Ridge near the top of Aspen Mountain.

Aspen locals and visitors have skied in the backcountry area since the late 1940s, according to David Corbin, SkiCo's senior vice president of planning and development.

And the 153 acres in the Pandora's area now being proposed for lift-served skiing was included into SkiCo’s Aspen Mountain master development plan in 1998, but it was subject to further review. The proposal has remained in that status ever since.

“It’s been 24 years in process, if you will, when you look at all the iterations of it,” Corbin said. “It’s been deferred before. We very much want to continue.”

The 153 acres of land in the Pandora’s area is now in the county's Rural and Remote zone district. According to the county's land use code, this zone is intended to “conserve and protect the natural environment and its resources, while allowing for limited recreational uses and limited residential development.”

SkiCo is proposing that the commissioners change the land in the Pandora's area to the Ski-Recreation zone. This would allow for construction of ski lifts and trails, restaurants and even affordable housing.

But SkiCo has offered the commissioners a restrictive covenant to assuage any concerns about overdeveloping the area.

At a Sept. 8 meeting, CEO Mike Kaplan explained the company's position to the county commissioners.

“The experience back there does honor the intent of rural and remote,” Kaplan said. “It’s more of a semi-backcountry experience. You’re not going to go back there and hear a party on the Cloud 9 deck. It’s going to feel like you’ve escaped.”

The covenant would limit construction in the Pandora’s area to one lift, one ski patrol shack, restrooms, ski trails, service roads, and utility facilities for water and electricity. It would also prevent any development in the Rural and Remote zone district that borders the Pandora’s and is owned by SkiCo.

During public comments on the proposal, some people questioned the carbon footprint of the Pandora’s expansion.

Auden Schendler, SkiCo’s senior vice president of sustainability, said the company must wield their political power to have a real impact on the climate crisis. He said there are bigger concerns than the Pandora’s when it comes to the human-caused climate crisis.

“It’s not about the individual carbon footprint of the project you’re talking about," he said. "It’s about how you affect the system.”

The majority of public comments have been in support of the expansion. But there was also vocal opposition, and Commissioner Francie Jacober was empathetic to the dissenting arguments.

“Letters in favor of it, for the most part, are about ‘My skiing, my days on the mountain, my mountain,’” Jacober said. “That doesn’t particularly impress me in the slightest little bit. And the letters against are coming from a more holistic way of looking at it.”

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury voted against the proposal in a straw poll.

At the Oct. 27 meeting, McNicholas Kury reviewed in the county’s land-use code some of the criteria for rezoning, saying SkiCo failed to prove that the proposed code change meets these requirements.

“And so there’s really a bulk of these that I think are problematic in this rezoning application where we shall not approve it because it doesn’t meet these standards,” she said.

Commissioner Steve Child said the Pandora’s terrain could be a critical part of skiing on Aspen Mountain as climate change worsens.

“Earth’s temperatures are gonna get higher much faster,” Child said. “And I think the only way that the ski company is going to be able to maintain downhill skiing is on the top third of the mountain. So this is a strategy I think we need to pay attention to.”

McNicholas Kury disagreed with Child, saying the commissioners cannot rezone something for anticipated changes.

Commissioner Greg Poschman acknowledged the community support for the proposal and hopes to pass it.

“I guess I really want to be on a board that makes this happen," Poschman. "I don’t want to kick it down the road. This is the time to do this. And I want to do it responsibly.”

Only four of the five county commissioners are voting on SkiCo’s proposal. (Patti Clapper recused herself due to a conflict of interest.) But three votes in favor of the proposal will still be necessary for it to pass. A 2-2 vote would mean denial.

A final vote on the SkiCo's proposal is set for Nov. 17.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.