Noise, safety, elitism
By Mark Reaman
While not taking an official position on the matter, the Crested Butte Town Council agreed to send a letter to the Gunnison County Planning Commission that includes comments from the public on the proposed Eleven helicopter landing area above Lake Irwin. All such comments made at the February 20 meeting were in opposition to the idea.
Scarp Ridge, LLC, a subsidiary of Eleven, runs the cat skiing operation and wants the landing area so clients can access and utilize the year-round recreational activities conducted on the company’s property and nearby national forest that includes snowcat skiing in the winter. The idea is that the helicopters would be private choppers not owned by Eleven and they would transport guests from places such as Aspen and Telluride. There would be an estimated four helicopter flights per month.
The town staff and attorney recommended that the council not take any official position on the matter because if the helicopter landing area is approved by the county and constructed, the company would need a watershed permit from the town because the location is within the Crested Butte watershed.
The council sits in ultimate judgment of such a permit and acting town manager Michael Yerman and town attorney John Sullivan “strongly” advised that it would be best to steer clear of the comment process since the council might find itself in a quasi-judicial position in the future that could be considered tainted.
Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt said the matters were very different in scope. “My problem is, I feel confined,” he said. “You are talking water quality issues and we are looking at other issues right now such as noise and safety.”
Yerman explained that the proposal doesn’t fall inside the Crested Butte Three Mile Plan Area, so jurisdictional authority is not part of the situation.
“This is one of those times when you need to think before you speak,” said Sullivan. “This could taint your ability to adjudicate a future situation with a permit request.”
Schmidt allocated some time for public comment while the council mulled over the staff’s advice.
Skip Berkshire said he feared a new precedent would be set if the helicopter request were approved.
“The heart of the matter is about environmental stewardship, quality of life, the fear of the camel getting his nose under the tent and the fear of a new precedent,” Berkshire said. “The thing that struck me looking at this issue in your online packet is the list of seven values that are the front of every council agenda. Look at those. No fewer than three of those values are directly impacted by this proposal and this warrants council comments on behalf of the citizens of Crested Butte. A ‘no comment’ position is not appropriate.”
John Ellis agreed. “While they say they are proposing four trips a month they won’t put a cap on it and won’t agree to not expand it,” he said. “You set a precedent if you allow this. You have to think about what we have here. There is a lot to be sacrificed for the benefit of a few people.”
Sue Navy spoke on behalf of the High Country Conservation Advocates and herself. She noted that HCCA believes helicopters will negatively impact many recreationalists, including hikers and bikers. “Helicopters bring noise that cannot be mitigated,” she said. “For me, the Gang of Nine (a group of local stakeholders that came up with compromise winter uses for each drainage with the US Forest Service in the 1990s) said ‘No’ to commercial helicopter operations in the area 20 years ago. If you allow it here, what’s to stop helicopters from landing at Elkton or anywhere else in the area? Don’t shatter our entire ambiance so a few people can get somewhere faster.”
Attorney Jim Starr suggested the council send a letter to the county Planning Commission representing comments from citizens and making it clear the council was not taking any position due to potential quasi-judicial situations. He then spoke against the idea. “What if a helicopter crashes in Lake Irwin? That’s our water. And second, helicopters pose an avalanche danger in winter. We have so many backcountry skiers and snowmobilers, it could result in a loss of life. The decision 20 years ago by the Gang of Nine was a good decision.”
“Helicopter noise doesn’t have a mile marker boundary,” added Harvey Castro. “The impact to wildlife could be significant. Eleven is on a fishing expedition with the goal to get its nose under the tent. I hope you can take the public’s comments and show that this is a terrible idea.”
Schmidt asked for a show of hands from people at the meeting against the helicopter proposal. Thirteen people raised their hands. No one was in favor.
Schmidt then made sure that any single council member could take a position and if deemed necessary in the future, excuse himself or herself from sitting in the position of reviewing a watershed permit. Sullivan said that was possible and could be considered in the future.
“I feel strongly about this particular subject,” said Schmidt. “There was a helicopter crash 20 years ago in that area. There was a helicopter crash last week in the Grand Canyon. As for noise, Lake Irwin is an echo chamber. Voices travel like crazy. To me, this is just crazy and I feel strongly it shouldn’t happen. There are other modes of transportation to the site. If, as someone said, it turns into a carnival ride, it will be a carnival ride for the elite. I’m very much against it.”
Councilman Chris Haver noted that the county was asking for feedback and by sending a letter with public comments, the town was assisting with that request.
Councilman Kent Cowherd said the request also raised an issue with him in regard to the council values listed on the agendas. “I am challenged by this proposal but with that being said, I want to respect the county’s review process.”
The council voted to send a letter as Starr suggested, with a recap of the citizen comments and no official position taken by the council itself. The staff will draft a letter and get it to the Planning Commission before the county’s April 6 public hearing on the matter.