Wednesday, December 21, 2016

For Woody Creekers, line is still drawn in the sand on Aspen-Pitkin County Airport plans

The last time there was serious talk about expanding and improving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, infamous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Don Henley of Eagles fame, and actor Don Johnson rose up in righteous indignation.

They were members of the Woody Creek Caucus, which organized a virulent fight against the proposal aimed at extending the airport’s runway so 737 jets could land.

The expansion opponents hung their hat on a slogan that can still be found on Thomas Benton posters throughout the Roaring Fork Valley: “There is some s--- we won’t eat.”

The fist-shaking wing of the Woody Creek Caucus has changed dramatically in the past 20-plus years. Some members have moved on. Some have passed away. Others have moved well into their golden years. But one thing has not changed: The caucus, which boasts about 100 members, is still adamantly opposed to any modification to the airport that would allow larger planes to land. They still target 737s.

At issue is a proposed quarter-billion-dollar expansion to the airport that is slated to include a new terminal and a runway modified to handle larger planes — including, perhaps, 737s.

Currently, the airport runway is about 100 feet wide, with a 320-foot buffer between the centerline of the runway and the taxiway. This is considered too narrow for Federal Aviation Administration safety standards, and as such, the county is required to impose a 95-foot wingspan cap.

Part of the proposed airport upgrades would push the runway 80 feet to the west and widen it to 150 feet to meet federal standards. Those dimensions would accommodate planes with up to a 118-foot wingspan, which includes Boeing 737s capable of holding up to 180 passengers.

That prompted 30-year Woody Creek resident Phil Holstein, until recently the moderator for the Woody Creek Caucus, to invoke the “line in the stand” bromide the group used to great effect in 1995 — an effect that saw the airport expansion referendum defeated by almost 20 points.

“We drew a line in the sand back then, and things haven’t changed,” Holstein said.

The present-day manifestation of that unambiguous stance takes the form of the innocuous-sounding 2016 Woody Creek Caucus Master Plan, which was presented to the Pitkin County Planning and Zoning Commission in mid-November.

According to Ellen Sassano, senior long-range planner for the county, the jurisdiction has 11 caucuses, which exist as quasi-legal entities under the county’s home-rule charter.

The caucuses are centered on geographic areas and have, among other things, “ … a recommendatory function for all planning matters affecting the caucus area,” according to wording in the home-rule charter.

Each of the county’s caucuses is in the process of updating their master plans.

Three of those — including the one from Woody Creek — have already been gone before P&Z.

Though the Woody Creek Caucus Master Plan reads in part like a political manifesto, it is, mostly, a dispassionate and sober document. It addresses agriculture, housing and public transportation in the Woody Creek area.

Even the six-page section on the airport acknowledges the vital role the facility plays in the area’s economy — wording that might have Thompson rolling in his grave.

The delicacy lasts all of three paragraphs.

The fourth paragraph reads: “Due to constant pressure from the business community and other special interest groups, there has been a prolonged effort to expand Sardy Field into a state-of-the-art, urban-style airport. The caucus views the justification and predictions of future needs for this massive expansion with skepticism.”

Though the airport lies outside the Woody Creek Caucus’ statutory turf, the fact that the hamlet lies directly under the flight path of a high percentage of the aircraft that utilize Pitkin County airspace inspires members to speak up.

The caucus master plan reads: “The airspace and mountainous surrounds of the narrow valley at the entrance to Aspen is a constant. A larger airport will certainly increase the pressure on this environment and on the people who live in the valley. There will be more noise, more pollution, more safety concerns and more competition in our limited airspace between commercial and [general aviation] aircraft.”

The document goes on to say that as local government continues to grow, it demands “more taxes and more bureaucracy to keep pace with the growth.

“None of the decisions that create growth are based on the character of the town we want. Rather, they are based on the need to keep people who have moved here for economic reasons employed,” the plan says. “Government and commercial infrastructure have to keep growing. The perceived need to keep the tourist base ever growing creates an onerous spiral in which quantity overwhelms quality.”

It is not surprising that the Woody Creek Caucus views, as its master plan states, the entire airport-expansion process with skepticism. What may be surprising is that, given a political environment that seems to be operating under the assumption that the airport expansion is essentially a given, a component of the county government — the planning and zoning commission — voted unanimously to accept the Woody Creek Caucus Master Plan — anti-airport rhetoric and all.

According to Sassano, though the home-rule charter gives caucuses legal standing to provide input to the government, the county is under no obligation to incorporate that input into operational policy.

Sassano points to the charter’s language, which states: “Recommendations made within all of the respective Caucus/Neighborhood master plans will be considered by appointed and elected officials in the context of consistency with overarching county land use policies and programs, and broader community goals, including but not limited to infrastructure and essential community facility needs.”

If elected and/or appointed officials determine that a plan recommendation is inconsistent with broader community goals and does not benefit the community as a whole, such recommendation may be considered, but not adopted, the charter says.

Add to that the fact that the planning and zoning commission itself serves in an advisory capacity to the county commissioners, and it’s fair to say that the wording of the Woody Creek Caucus Master Plan will likely not be carved in granite at the new-and-improved airport terminal, if, indeed, that terminal is built.

That does not dissuade Holstein.

“We plan to be as aggressively involved in the fight as the Woody Creek Caucus was in 1995,” he said. “This is an issue that is important to this valley. It makes me angry that many people are operating under the assumption that this is a done deal.”

The ghost of Dr. Gonzo himself may be stirring.

Original article can be found here:

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