No decision on Ascendigo camp after hearing spills into third day; debate focuses on ‘educational facility’ definition to meet rural zoning

Members of the public pack the Garfield County commissioners meeting room in Glenwood Springs Monday to hear about plans for the Ascendigo Ranch camp for autistic children in rural Missouri Heights east of Carbondale.
John Stroud/Post Independent

Whether Ascendigo Autism Services’ proposed Missouri Heights camp meets Garfield County’s definition as an “education facility” dominated much of the debate during a full day of public comment before county commissioners Tuesday.

Neighbors who oppose the project contend that definition is an attempt to “shoehorn” the proposed summer camp and year-round therapy services center into the middle of the rurally zoned residential neighborhoods that straddle the Garfield-Eagle county line northeast of El Jebel.

Supporters of the project, including many employees of Carbondale-based Ascendigo, past campers and parents of autistic children, countered that the programs provided by the organization are educational in nature.

On the procedural front, there’s no time limit to offer comment before the commissioners on land-use matters, so those speaking to the emotionally charged issue took full advantage of that leniency.

County commissioners heard comments from more than 45 people — some taking 20 minutes or more to make their point — before continuing the public hearing to a third day.

Another 40 or so people have indicated a desire to provide comment via Zoom, and will be given that chance to start things off at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Exactly when the commissioners will reach a decision whether to allow Ascendigo to turn the 126-acre former Whitecloud residential subdivision into a summer outdoor adventure camp and year-round facility to serve children with autism is anyone’s guess.

The camp is adamantly opposed by hundreds of residents surrounding the site for reasons ranging from concerns about wildfire, increased traffic on rural roads, water availability and potential impacts on neighboring wells, and compatibility with the mostly large-lot rural homes that dot the sage-covered hillsides of eastern Missouri Heights.

The question of whether the camp meets the county’s “educational facility” definition within the rural zone district is a matter of interpretation.

County planning staff made the designation and also recommended approval of the project, saying the camp qualifies as an allowed educational use, but subject to a limited-impact review before the county commissioners.

Steve Coon lives on Harmony Lane just east of the proposed camp site, which would serve as the main entrance into the facility.

“I’m not against Ascendigo, nor do I wish any ill will against anyone here today,” Coon said. “They do great work … but, this is a commercial entity, not an educational facility.”

Several opponents pointed to the county’s own code definition of an educational facility, which says that to meet that standard it must be associated with an educational institution.

Ascendigo has no such affiliation and does not define itself as an educational institution, pointed out neighboring resident Kirk Hartley.

“The intention was for a neighborhood school, maybe with some staff housing on site,” he said. “What they are proposing is most like a commercial, recreational summer camp.”

Hartley also echoed a common preface by many of the opponents of the project, saying, “I assure you that the people here who oppose this project agree with and support the mission of Ascendigo.

“This is just the wrong location.”

Several of Ascendigo’s program directors and instructors took issue with the contention that their work with autistic children and adults isn’t educational.

“Education looks different for the differently-abled,” said Julie Kaufman, director of development for Ascendigo, adding that simply learning independent living and social skills is education for children on the spectrum.

“Our participants may not get their education in a calculus classroom,” she offered. “But learning isn’t always measured by a PSAT. It is an education nonetheless.”

Valerie Paradiz is vice president of Services and Supports for the organization Autism Speaks, and also spoke to the educational aspects of what Ascendigo does.

Growing up as an autistic child herself, she said the outdoor experiences her family exposed her to — which is a core part of Ascendigo’s mission and what the Summer Adventure Camp is all about — “helped me to feel confident as a person.”

The Ascendigo proposal also received an endorsement from Patrick McGinty, special education director for the Roaring Fork School District. He said the local schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt work closely with Ascendigo to provide for the educational needs of students who are on the spectrum.

Water availability to serve the camp and potential impacts on nearby residential wells also continued to be a major topic in Tuesday’s comments, as it was during Monday’s applicant presentation and counter-points made by the opposition group Keep Missouri Heights Rural.

Ascendigo also plans to irrigate the pasture lands on the property using diverted water from upper Cattle Creek, which they say will serve to recharge the aquifer. That would not be the case with residential development, land-use consultant Bob Schultz indicated during Monday’s presentation.

However, the availability of diverted water to the site during the ongoing drought is questions, said neighboring resident Bill Niro.

Already this year, he said Missouri Heights residents that are served by the Spring Park Reservoir ditch system have been advised that there is not enough water in the reservoir to deliver actual water this summer.

Tuesday was the first full day dedicated to hearing and taking comment on Ascendigo’s plans. The hearing began during the afternoon session of Monday’s regular Board of County Commissioners meeting.

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or

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