Ascendigo plan for Missouri Heights camp facility meets with neighbor opposition
Proposal entails extensive summer camp amenities, year-round activity center
A plan by Ascendigo Autism Services to develop 126 acres in eastern Missouri Heights near El Jebel for a summer camp and year-round activities center for autistic children is now before Garfield County planning officials for review.
Before the plan was even submitted in late January by the Carbondale-based nonprofit organization, though, a group of nearby residents organized in opposition to the plans.
Among their chief concerns is that they view the development as a business operation in a rural, residential area that would generate excess traffic, impact the local water supply and potentially create a wildfire hazard.
“People moved here for the rural beauty, and piece by piece we’re losing that,” said David Aguilar, representing the Keep Missouri Heights Rural group. The coalition has formally organized as a nonprofit organization, according to its website.
“This is a very large enterprise being dropped into the middle of a residential area, and would change the entire nature of the neighborhood and why people came here.”
Location ’seemed right’
Ascendigo secured the property on Oct. 1, 2020 from residential developers Janckila Construction, which was preparing to pull building permits for 15 homes to be built on the site.
The site combines the White Cloud and Harmony Heights parcels, which at one time had been envisioned for more than 20 homes, but which sat undeveloped for 20 years.
In recent years, several pre-development improvements were made, including the construction of interior subdivision roads, water systems and fire protection infrastructure, plus electric and natural gas service.
“For us, it’s really important to be close to services,” Dan Richardson, chief operating officer for Ascendigo, said. Richardson is also the elected mayor of Carbondale, but the town is not directly involved in the review process.
“We had put other properties under contract, and for various reasons it wasn’t right. So, we thought … here we have the utilities in place, and it’s going to be less impact (than 15 homes). …It just seemed right.”
The property is situated just west of the Garfield-Eagle county line, but is entirely in Garfield County, west of the private Harmony Lane and south of Garfield County Road 102, which becomes Fender Lane on the Eagle County side.
About half of the larger 126-acre property is developable, as much of it is steep hillside descending toward Colorado Highway 82, with the Cerise Ranch subdivision in-between.
Included in the development plan is:
• A 6,800-square-foot base camp headquarters for reception, meals, education and training;
• A 8,500-square-foot lodge that can sleep up to 24 campers and two staff;
• A staff lodge of 8,500 square feet for up to 48 staff members;
• A 14,000-square-foot activity barn and therapy center;
• A caretaker home and accessory unit;
• A guest cabin; and,
• An equestrian center for Ascendigo’s equine therapy services.
NEW: Read the full application and supporting documents here, including the latest information about a 1 p.m. May 10 public hearing to schedule a public site visit.
Ascendigo began in 2004 as a summer camp for autistic children, and has since grown to include year-round adventure activities and a range of autism support services for children, teens and adults, and their families.
The summer camp now entails eight full weeks of residential camp programming, in recent years operating at the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus.
“CMC has been our home for six years, but it is limited in that we have to follow their requirements and stick to certain periods of time, and the facilities aren’t really designed for those with autism,” Richardson said. “The impetus for having our own property is that we can design it exactly to our needs.”
Ascendigo CEO Peter Bell said the camp facility will help the organization achieve its mission to “elevate the spectrum” when it comes to serving those on the autism spectrum and supporting their families.
“The prospect of having a permanent home for our summer camp and related activities in the Roaring Fork Valley will help us achieve this goal and so much more,” Bell said.
“Ascendigo was started under the premise that people with autism deserve to be a vital part of our community and given the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Once developed, Ascendigo’s property in Missouri Heights will afford our campers and local participants a chance to feel connected to a community.”
Facilities are to be custom-built for people with autism, “to show us what they are capable of doing and to build skills and confidence in being an active contributor,” Bell said.
Bell and Richardson said Ascendigo has gone to great lengths to minimize the impacts on the nearby residents, and intends to open many of the amenities for the larger community to use.
Many of the neighbor concerns have been addressed through a dedicated webpage and accompanying FAQ. Some area residents have even written letters of support for the project.
Water, fire worries
Aguilar, who has lived in the adjacent Aspen Mesa Estates subdivision for six years, said he and others associated with the Keep Missouri Heights Rural group worry about the precedent of allowing commercial-scale development to come in.
“It opens the door for any other business organization, a company store, a hotel, whatever, to put a large commercial enterprise in this neighborhood,” he said.
Water is already a concern in the area, especially given drought impacts in more recent years, Aguilar said.
“We have people up here with wells that are going dry, and they are going to be drawing from the same water table,” he said. “For us, water is life up here.”
That leads to another major concern — the danger of wildfire, which he said could be greater with a large summer camp facility.
“We were evacuated during the Lake Christine Fire (in summer 2018), and were on stand-by last summer during the Grizzly Creek Fire,” Aguilar noted. “We have 40-mile-an-hour wind gusts starting in the morning most summer days … one little accident, we lose our homes.”
Richardson noted that Garfield County identifies the proposal as an “educational use,” which is allowed under the existing zoning.
“That’s how we view it,” he said. “I can see how people feel it’s commercial, because it’s not residential, but it is an educational use.”
That’s not to say it won’t be an intensive use, especially during the summer camp months, Richardson said.
“We think that’s manageable,” he said. “Working with a nonprofit that has a vested interest in maintaining a good reputation is going to be a better neighbor than an HOA.”
Aguilar, who is a retired astronomer and has an observatory, is also worried about light pollution from the camp.
“I use it for research and write educational books for kids,” he said. “I fear I’ll lose that ability if this goes in next door.”
Richardson said the plan includes light shielding for exterior lighting and to prevent light leakage from inside buildings.
“We’ve really been extremely conscious about where we’ve sited the buildings so that the majority of them are out of sight of the majority of homeowners,” Richardson said.
The proposal is subject to a Limited Impact Review by Garfield County, as well as vacation of the prior plat approvals. Currently, the application is undergoing a staff-level sufficiency review, and is expected to be scheduled for public hearings this spring before the county’s Planning Commission and Board of County Commissioners.
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