Garfield County commissioners vote to deny Ascendigo camp proposed for Missouri Heights
Following months of arguments and protests from local Missouri Heights residents, the contentious proposal to turn 126 acres of pastureland near Carbondale and El Jebel into a year-round facility that services autistic children was denied Monday by the Garfield County Commission.
A motion made during a Monday morning special meeting by Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson to deny Ascendigo Autism Services’ proposal to build on the far eastern end of Missouri Heights was seconded by Chair John Martin. Commissioner Tom Jankovsky opposed the motion.
Samson said he made the motion based on three key reasons.
First, Samson, a former teacher at Rifle High School, said Ascendigo does not fit the definition of “educational facility,” which was a major prerequisite to adhering to the area’s rural zone district.
“I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus,” he said, “… Perhaps a revision in our code or a text amendment would help greatly in the future in dealing with these types of situations.”
According to Ascendigo’s proposal, they partnered with the Roaring Fork School District and use college interns in relation to the proposed site.
Second, Samson questioned the prospective facility’s access to water. Third, he said Ascendigo would not be “compatible” with the surrounding neighborhood, which is predominantly made up of large-lot, rural subdivisions.
“There are much better places in our county to put those types of facilities,” Samson said.
Ascendigo’s original proposal included building a 6,800-square-foot base facility, an 8,500 square-foot lodge for campers, 14,000-square-foot activity barn, an equestrian center, plus a guest cabin and a caretaker unit. Its summer camp would serve 24 participants a week, and the facility would serve an estimated 200 individuals with autism per year.
Opposing landowners were galvanized into creating the “Keep Missouri Heights Rural” coalition. Not only did the organization hire its own legal representation to argue against Ascendigo’s original proposal, they gathered more than 620 signatures from people opposing the plan and raised more than $25,000 to fight the plans.
Concerns about the proposal covered a wide spectrum, including water access, fire danger and the potential for an increase in traffic on rural roads.
Jankovsky said on Monday, however, that Ascendigo’s plan did in fact meet the definition of an “educational facility,” and that fire danger is present no matter where in Garfield County and that the proposed facility is in fact compatible with the surrounding area.
“ … I think it was more compatible than 5-acre lots and large homes,” he said.
Jankovsky also highlighted Ascendigo’s agricultural qualities throughout the proposal, which include riding stables, an equestrian park and a hayfield.
But it’s not just the proposal that Jankovksy liked. He said Janckila Construction Inc., the Basalt-based company that owned the property prior to Ascendigo, already had intentions of building 26 residential units in Missouri Heights.
Included in that potential project were a 300,000-gallon water tank and a chip-and-seal road. One argument the Keep Missouri Heights Rural organization has made throughout this entire issue was that the main access road — Harmony Lane — would get switched from dirt to asphalt.
“And (Janckila) very well could have done that, because there’s another 41 acres that hasn’t been subdivided yet on that,” he said. “I think they have 26 units in there that are not as compatible as what it is Ascendigo wants to do.”
Meanwhile, Garfield County planning staff already recommended that the county commissioners approve the project based on several exhibits presented by Ascendigo highlighting a lengthy analysis of the proposal.
Jankovsky would echo that analysis, saying anywhere in rural Garfield County has potential for fire danger.
“It showed that particular area did not have high fire danger,” he said. “And I think with the water they have with sprinklers in their buildings, I think there’s good reason to think that it is as good as any.”
With Martin being the tie-breaking vote, he said the reasons why he opposed Ascendigo’s proposal were based upon the findings that Samson stated.
“I have a couple of concerns about water access and compatibility, and the nature of the area; that is true,” Martins said of his concerns. “But it is not about the actual children.”
Following the commission’s decision to deny Ascendigo’s proposal, Keep Missouri Heights Rural representative Lori Brandon said the organization was “heartened” and “grateful” that the commissioners considered the long-term and short-term impacts of the proposed development.
“I mean, it’s a lot of things,” Brandon said of what the organization believes to be potential impacts. “It’s fire, it’s water, it’s wind, it’s, you know, a lot of things in terms of the danger of evacuation. It’s the traffic, it’s the density of the number of people that were going to be on the property every day. So, you know, it just wasn’t compatible.”
In response to Janckila’s previous proposal to build new units in the area, Brandon said that it was actually 15 homes that would likely be built over a decade.
“And not all of them would necessarily be primary residences,” she said. “So the impact from those 15 homes that (Jankovsky) was comparing to… to say that it was worse, would never have been worse. It would have been a fraction. And that was one of the cases that we felt strongly about making.”
Asked if it was a difficult task to oppose a facility that had intentions of helping autistic children and young adults, Brandon said “absolutely.”
“The hardest part of this was to oppose something that had such an admirable mission,” she said. “We all support what Ascendigo does, many of us know their work. Many of us have kids on the spectrum, people have donated to the organization. This was never about the organization or its clientele. This is only about land use.”
Brandon said the issues about fire danger are two-fold. Getting visitors and campers who don’t have the same kind of fire danger awareness that those of who live there and who are committed to being careful is a risk, she said. She added that trying to move people out of a single-access road with animals and into emergency vehicles is also risky.
Brandon, who recently moved permanently to the area but has been here on and off for the past 10 years, said the last major fire to threaten the Missouri Heights area was the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire.
“I was here last summer when we had the Grizzly Creek Fire, and, actually, you can see the smoke, and we were smelling it every day. And I took pictures of it,” she said. “It was only about 11 or 12 miles, by the way the crow flies, from my house. And then we had the Lake Christine Fire just a few years ago, where my parents who live nearby and where I live were evacuated, as were all the people along Harmony Lane.”
Brandon stressed that Ascendigo has other sites to consider around Garfield County.
But for Ascendigo Autism Services Director of Development Julie Kaufman, the proposed site in Missouri Heights was ideal for their needs.
“Missouri Heights was a great location for us because the parcel of land was 126 acres, and it really allowed us to build in a very low-density manner,” she said. “So the plans were for six buildings across 126 acres, and the footprint of those buildings is actually much less than the alternative-use subdivision.”
The proposed site also allowed Ascendigo to preserve the rural environment that participants come to enjoy, Kaufman said.
“A horse riding arena and pasture land would be on-site, community gardens would be their playing fields. [There would be] plenty of space to really give our participants the outdoor rural environment that they come here for,” she said.
Kaufman said Ascendigo officials were disappointed by the commission’s decision to deny their proposal.
“You know, that was a really unfortunate decision. We felt that the county staff who designated us as an educational facility got it right,” she said. “Everything Ascendigo does is educational at its core. We’re a partner of Roaring Fork schools. We believe we fit well in the educational facility designation. … Unfortunately, you know, commissioners Martin and Samson disagreed with that designation.”
Kaufman said Ascendigo also believes that the technical merits of their application were very sound.
“We brought in experts in water use in water storage,” she said. “We did all the level of due diligence that this application would require. The county’s own water experts agreed with our findings.”
The denial does not help the effort to mitigate those who suffer from autism, Kaufman agreed.
“Autism impacts one in 54 children, and to not give organizations who are doing their best to serve this population, and provide spaces that this population can thrive, is a disservice not only to the autism community, to the families that are affected, but to communities at large,” she said.
Asked her overall thoughts on the Keep Missouri Heights Rural organization, Kaufman said, “I’m gonna provide no comment.”
“The fact is, Ascendigo has been on a property search for many years,” she said. “We welcome community input and assistance from the county in offering solutions, and Ascendigo has an important vision for serving the autism community.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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