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County planners okay with RMBL summer plan; winter in limbo

Public hearing continued again until mid-June

By Mark Reaman

The Gunnison County Planning Commission has directed the staff to draft a document recommending approval for summer activities proposed by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The planners want to wait before making a decision on RMBL’s proposed winter activities until the county commissioners tackle winter travel issues in the Gothic corridor. That could come as early as June.

In a letter to county planner Rachel Sabbato last week, RMBL executive director Ian Billick agreed and requested that the county planners proceed with a recommendation for use of the North Pole Basin and Schofield properties owned by RMBL as well as the “non-mission related” uses of the Gothic Townsite outside winter months.

“Once the Board of County Commissioners updates its intent for management of snowmobile use of the Gothic [corridor] we will work with your office on how to best move forward with the winter use part of our application,” he wrote.

RMBL has been before the Planning Commission for months trying to clarify what is allowed under its county permit. That opened up a can of worms with the county commissioners, who were uneasy with the idea of RMBL using snowmobiles to access the property along Gothic Road in the winter. Under a group convened by the U.S. Forest Service many years ago and known locally as the “Gang of Nine,” the Gothic corridor was designated to be an area where use of snowmobiles was kept to a minimum. Some people also questioned the impacts of some summer activities, such as weddings, being held at the RMBL site.

At the May 4 public hearing, Billick went over several issues with the planning commissioners. He said RMBL would be interested in winter programs that are not reliant on snowmobiles but might need some snowmobile support. As for summer, Billick said the lab has been a host for some events such as weddings that aren’t clearly permitted but have been occurring for many years. “We have historically hosted groups not directly related to our mission,” he said. “We would not do that type of event in the heart of summer.”

He proposed that RMBL be permitted to host such special events between August 15 and November 1. The majority of students and scientists spend the ten-week period beginning about June 1 at the lab doing research before heading back to school.

Billick assured the Planning Commission that RMBL is “aggressive” about managing parking in Gothic and when a special event has more than 20 guests, the required use of mass transportation is part of the contract. He used a Crested Butte Music Festival concert held in Gothic last summer as an example of requiring shuttles to ferry guests between Mt. Crested Butte and Gothic.

Local resident Patricia Del Tredici said she was a supporter of RMBL but questioned why it would host special events including weddings that were not part of the scientific mission.

Billick said it was about the money. “The challenge RMBL has is developing a financial model to keep us sustainable,” he said. “We have fixed costs that come with our buildings and our primary season is about ten weeks long. So we are thinking creatively to make it work. Weddings generate a lot of money quickly in the fall. We need resources to fund our operation and the costs of general pressures that come from the public such as the outhouses. The motivation is to make RMBL work financially.”

“I understand but see it as a conflict,” said Del Tredici. “Like most everything near here in the summer, Gothic sees tremendous overuse in the summer. Having events like weddings increases the exposure of the area and makes it more of a destination. It comes with consequences.”

“We don’t see that as a driver,” responded Billick. “Now, if the Forest Service or the county wants to cover costs we incur we would love to make that trade. We’re just trying to figure it out. More and more people are coming to Colorado and I would rather see a wedding in Gothic where we have the infrastructure than above Gothic without parking and bathroom facilities, for example.”

Winter conundrum

As for winter use, resident Bill Oliver wanted to make sure the RMBL proposal did not increase the frequency of snowmobile use in the corridor.

“That is up to the county commissioners when they decide the appropriate use for Gothic Road in the winter,” responded Planning Commission chairman Kent Fulton. “That is one reason this application has been delayed. We are waiting for direction from the commissioners. A lot of winter travel will be based on that commissioner decision.”

“We have not proposed any increase in use from our end,” added Billick. “It was the request by the county to clarify our winter uses and then snowmobiles became part of the discussion and it got kicked up to the county commissioners.”

Along with its summer and fall operations, RMBL has historically hosted winter programs but the current county permit is ambiguous about how they are regulated. The lab also has rented out cabins to the general public for decades for winter backcountry excursions.

“We are looking for board direction on the use of that corridor,” said Gunnison county community and economic development department assistant director Neal Starkebaum. “We hope to have a decision from the commissioners this summer. It will be good for the staff, the Planning Commission and the citizens.”

Deputy county manager Marlene Crosby said the jurisdictional aspect of who is responsible for the Gothic Road—the county or the Forest Service—has been cleared up and it is the county.

The commissioners are slated to have that snowmobile discussion on June 5.

County planning staff suggested that perhaps RMBL separate the winter and the summer permit uses. Billick originally suggested keeping the permit request as one and they would then adjust winter uses to whatever is ultimately decided by the commissioners on the snowmobile issue. Fulton said he was uncomfortable to go there with a pending county commissioner decision so close.

“We have to be consistent with any county decision and operate within county restrictions, so I don’t see the logic,” said Billick. “We would have to live with whatever the commissioners decide.”

“I’m uncomfortable with that,” said Crosby. “The staff can’t say how specific or how general that county commissioner resolution will be. I’d prefer to wait to see the resolution expedited because we don’t know what it will say and what impact it will have on RMBL.”

The public hearing about the RMBL permit was continued until June 15 at 9 a.m. The county commissioners are tentatively scheduled to discuss winter travel in the Gothic corridor at their June 5 meeting.

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