Irwin expansion proposal triggers debate over depth of county review

“We’re not building a Wal-Mart, we’re building a zip line“

The first major issue with an Irwin Backcountry Guides (IBG) proposal to the Gunnison County Planning Commission to expand the operation concerned the application.




The company believes adding zip lines, challenge courses, mountain bike trails, guided hiking, snowshoeing, Nordic and fishing tours, dinner tours, a 1,788 square foot boathouse with public boat rentals and a children’s play area should be considered under the county’s minor impact process. All the improvements would be located in the basin near the current center of Irwin snowcat operations, the Movie Cabin. The boathouse would be situated near Lake Irwin and act as a clubhouse.
Planning Commission chairman Ramon Reed, some fellow commissioners and some members of the public all stated that given the cumulative impacts of a growing Irwin commercial operation, the plan should be looked at as a major impact.
The primary difference between major and minor classification processes is time. Under a major impact classification, the proposal would go through a process similar to a major subdivision review. It requires a sketch plan submission, a preliminary plan review and a final plan approval.
A major impact proposal gets kicked between the Board of County Commissioners and the Planning Commission at least twice. According to Cathie Pagano, the county planner, the major impact process usually takes between one and two years for approval.
Under a minor impact review, the Planning Commission reviews the proposal during a series of work sessions and a public hearing and then makes the decision. Pagano said that is a quicker review but the review standards can be the same as a major impact classification.
IBG general manager Alan Bernholtz and IBG attorney David Leinsdorf pled their case for a minor impact process with the hope that the expansion and amenities could be put in place for the upcoming summer. Reed said even under a minor impact review, he doubted approval would come in time to allow a start-up this summer.
While Reed had hoped his board would make a decision on the classification at the Friday, February 3 work session, both sides agreed to make that decision at a later meeting. IBG wants to amend its application to revise down the number of people expected each day at the summer operation, from more than 200 to a new figure that Bernholtz said would be based more in reality.
“We are trying to get our operation to be a year-round operation,” explained Bernholtz. “We are in our third year and we are still finishing up our snowcat barn facility up there. We have hired 220 people in the community in the last year and a half and we are trying to continue that momentum.”
“We need a deep, thorough discussion over the impact classification,” Reed said. “This is the third time the company has come for an approval from the county and this plan is submitted as another minor impact. Personally, I think that is wrong. I think it should start as a major. The cumulative impacts of the Irwin operation should be the basis. To me, that is the correct starting point, given the cumulative impacts. Under our rules, the boathouse puts the building impacts into the major classification by definition. Plus, there are a lot of uses on this proposal. It exceeds the criteria for a minor impact.”
“We think it should be classified as minor,” responded Leinsdorf. “Whatever impacts are generated by this project, your review won’t be any less thorough on a minor impact review. It just won’t go through the three stages with the commissioners. Frankly, any issue you can raise in the major impact review, you can raise in the minor impact review. Plus, the Planning Commission, rather than the commissioners, makes the final decision in a minor review.
“Our goal is to initiate some of these proposals this summer,” Leinsdorf continued. “If it is classified as major, we won’t be able to do that.”
“You are probably right,” said Reed. “It would be great if you could start some of these things this year but that may not be possible even with the shorter, minor, review process. When would we even be able to get up there for a site visit?”
“Now,” said Leinsdorf.
“Realistically, we would want to see the plan area without snow on the ground,” responded Reed. “There are a lot of trails proposed.”
“If we were going into a pristine wilderness, then calling this proposal minor might be a stretch,” argued Leinsdorf. “But given the amount of activity already taking place in the area, it is minor. We are not dealing with a pristine area. We are expanding activity where activity is already plentiful in summer and winter. There are already a lot of impacts to that area.”
“Historically, there has always been a lot of usage up there,” added Bernholtz. “The old Irwin Lodge had a bar and horseback rides and a lot of people. We think, even with this proposal, there will be less usage than what the lodge was doing ten years ago.”
“Some of the things you are suggesting sound really neat to me,” said Reed. “But given the location and type of activity, we need to have a deep discussion. For example, I don’t want the local EMTs to be stretched as a result of this operation.”
“Everything we are doing involves some risk. We are mountain guides,” said Bernholtz. “The biggest risk probably comes in mountain biking. We are offering high adventure activities. We are all trained Wilderness First Responders. We are prepared up there. We won’t be calling the EMS for an evac. We can do those ourselves.”
Responding to a question from planning commissioner Jim Seitz, Bernholtz said IBG had no plans to plow the roads to gain early (or late) summer access to the site. “Like everything around here, we expect the main operation to run between mid-June and September. We might try to get some photo shoots in the spring or some training classes in the fall but the primary activity will be in the summer.”
“Looking at your maps in the application makes me nervous about the impact,” said Reed. “You are taking a lot of acres and covering it with activity. It’s not just the site where the buildings are located. It’s 50 or 60 acres. That’s a lot of impact on wildlife and environment.”
“The area we are talking about is essentially between the Movie Cabin and the old lodge,” said Bernholtz. “We are going road to road. The area is not pristine.”
“We are talking land use,” countered Reed. “Use of the property is significant.”
“There will certainly be more use but it is consistent with what’s been up there historically. The lake is busy, the trails up there are busy,” said Bernholtz.
“We didn’t say there would be no impact,” said Leinsdorf. “We believe it will be minor impact.”
“To me, under the LUR [Land Use Resolution] it is a major impact considering the prior two approvals Irwin has received,” said Reed. “It is major under the definition. There is also a public concern about the overall development of this property. I don’t think this is a bad idea but we have to work under the LUR. That’s our Bible.”
Irwin property owner Teddy Evans agreed that the project should be classified as major. “The cat skiing was classified as minor, which was a little strange to me,” Evans said. “The fuel storage is in the watershed. The cat barn was designed in size to just fall into the minor category. It is busy up there but I still think of it as pristine. Are they going to come back and ask to make better roads? Are people going to start building million dollar homes up there?”
Property owner Jonathan Achenbach agreed. “At the meeting last year the idea of the cumulative effect was brought up,” he said. “I think that is fair. The boathouse seems pretty big and close to the lake. I’m not against business up there but it should be considered appropriately.”
“We aren’t planning any road expansion and the county has already allowed an expensive home on the lake,” said Bernholtz. “The boathouse would be more of a clubhouse and we would hide it as much as possible. For us, it would be easier to haul the zip line equipment up there over the snow in May.”
“To be honest, I don’t see that timing happening,” re-emphasized Reed. “There are a lot of things to address.”
“If we need to remove the boathouse from the application to get a minor impact, we are willing to do that,” suggested Leinsdorf. “Getting the outdoor activities approved this spring is a priority.”
“We want to someday bring in a master plan,” said Bernholtz.
“Can we do that last year?” responded Reed.
“I’m looking at the prior approvals and it seems every year we get another application turning it into a major project,” said Kent Fulton, a planning commissioner. “Every year there is something new. That’s my concern. At some point it becomes a major impact.”
“We have a lot of information but I want to hear from the other agencies and their experts,” said Warren Wilcox, a planning commissioner. “I feel we need that before we make a judgment call on the major or minor impact. I like the project and I’m all for speeding up business.”
“We would like the opportunity to amend the application and come back with real visitor numbers,” said Leinsdorf. “We’d like you to defer the decision on classification as well.”
“If we go with a minor, we’ll need a lot more information before approval,” said Reed. “This is not a simple application.”
“I think we can do what we need to do in a timely fashion,” said Fulton. “We can work through the pieces.”
“As always, a lot depends on the applicant getting us all the requested information,” said Pagano.
“Even if classified as major, I don’t think it will take a year,” said Reed, “but I’m not sure it can be done for this summer.”
“Again, by going minor, it’s not like the standards are relaxed,” said Leinsdorf. “You can ask for anything and we’ll respond quickly.”
“We’re not asking for special favors,” said Bernholtz. “We’re trying to create jobs. We’re trying to keep things going in the valley. The fact of the matter is we’re talking zip lines. [Crested Butte Mountain Resort] has them. It’s not earth-shaking changes. We’re trying to keep things going and hire people. We need to do whatever we can to bring tourism and people and money to the north end of the valley. Tourism is a sustainable industry. We’re not building a Wal-Mart, we’re building a zip line. “
Other issues addressed at the initial meeting included ISDS concerns and conflict between figures proposed by IBG engineer Bob Williams and Richard Stenson, the county environmental health specialist.
Pagano will schedule another work session with the revised application. The commission will then decide how to classify the IBG request.

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