Ascendigo decision postponed to Monday; extra conditions offered by county planners to mitigate camp impacts
Armed with several potential extra conditions of approval meant to help appease neighborhood concerns about the proposed Ascendigo children’s autism camp in Missouri Heights, and after several more hours of public comments Wednesday, Garfield County commissioners were in no hurry to make a decision.
Toward the end of the third day of the public land-use hearing, commissioners closed the public comments portion of the hearing but continued their deliberation until 8 a.m. Monday.
After an extra four days to review technical documents, staff-recommended conditions and hundreds of both oral and written public comments, the three commissioners hope to make a final decision Monday morning.
Carbondale-based Ascendigo Autism Services is proposing to turn the 126-acre former Whitecloud residential subdivision northwest of El Jebel — platted for 15 homes several years ago that were never built — into a summer camp and year-round activities center to serve children who are on the autism spectrum.
The plan includes a 6,800-square-foot base facility, an 8,500-square-foot lodge for campers, a 14,000-square-foot activity barn, an equestrian center, a guest cabin and a caretaker unit.
Neighbors in the mostly large-lot subdivisions straddling the Garfield-Eagle county line have organized as Keep Missouri Heights Rural to oppose the plans. Among their primary concerns are increases in traffic, wildfire risk, adequacy of water supplies and the potential precedent for other commercial-scale development in the area.
Garfield County planning staff, adding to several initial conditions of approval that were recommended, suggested four more conditions aimed at holding Ascendigo to its word with regards to wildfire preparedness, traffic and noise. They would include:
• Establishing a secondary gated access or easement for emergency vehicles to use in the event of a fire.
• Written confirmation of a mutual aid agreement with Roaring Fork Fire Rescue, and provisions to regularly mow the meadows on the site to limit vegetation fuels.
• A hard cap of no more than 210 vehicle trips per day on the site, on average, as measured over a seven-day period during the peak eight-week summer camp period.
• Compliance with state standards on noise limitations, which is 50 decibels at night and 55 decibels during the day, as measured at the property line, plus additional noise mitigation for the base camp and activity barn.
Karen Moculeski, who co-chairs Keep Missouri Heights Rural, said after the hearing concluded for the day Wednesday that no level of extra conditions will make the project acceptable.
“You can make as many conditions as you want, and it’s still not compliant (with the rural zoning),” she said. “Most of these conditions are unenforceable. They can’t be patrolled, they can’t be measured, and they can’t be checked.”
Ascendigo Chief Operating Officer Dan Richardson said the nonprofit developers of the camp facility would be willing to live with the extra assurances.
“Obviously, we would prefer as much flexibility as possible,” he said. “But I understand where staff is coming from, and I think it does address the neighbor concerns of holding us to account for what we’ve committed to.”
The extra conditions would be in addition to those contained in the initial staff report, including annual traffic counts, maintenance agreements on the private Harmony Lane, which would provide the main access to the camp from Fender Lane, provisions to conserve water and maintain water agreements, and limiting the activity barn building height to 25 feet.
Sheryl Bower, community development director for Garfield County, also explained how county planners arrived at the “educational facility” definition for the proposed camp.
Opponents have questioned that designation as an allowed “limited impact review” use in the county’s rural zone district, saying Ascendigo’s proposal is more like a commercial operation.
In making that determination, Bower said staff looked at the description of services provided by Ascendigo and decided it fit the education facility category best.
Richardson said Ascendigo did not ask for that designation but agreed that the services offered are unique and do have an educational component.
“What we do at Ascendigo doesn’t fit in a box, which is exactly why we exist in terms of how we educate and support people with autism,” he said. “We bring meaning and purpose to people’s lives, and that is very much education.”
The decision to postpone a final decision on the proposal came after two-and-a-half days of staff, applicant and opposition group presentations and several hours of public comments.
Richardson said he respects the thoroughness of the commissioners’ and county staff’s review.
“I appreciate the Board of County Commissioners for allowing all the voices to be heard. I don’t think there’s anybody who can say the process wasn’t thorough,” Richardson said.
Added Moculeski with regards to the hearing process, “We certainly appreciate all the consideration that Chair (John) Martin gave to the public and allowing the ability to comment.”
However, she said she and other members of Keep Missouri Heights Rural were frustrated at times by the lack of timely information from the county planning office.
“As with any land-use application it’s very difficult for those opposing an application to get documents in a timely manner,” she said. “That’s just how the system works, but it puts us at a disadvantage to respond.”
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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