Water, other experts offer countering opinions over Ascendigo summer camp plan in Missouri Heights

Public comment portion of hearing commences at 8 a.m. Tuesday

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

Water — specifically the adequacy of that precious resource to serve the Ascendigo Ranch autistic children’s camp without harming nearby residential wells — became a key point of contention Monday on the opening day of a public land-use hearing before Garfield County commissioners.

On the first of what is expected to be a two-day hearing, Ascendigo Autism Services concluded its pitch to allow for a children’s summer camp and year-round equestrian and outdoor services facility on 126 acres at the far east end of Missouri Heights above El Jebel.

A lengthy counter-point was then provided by land-use, water, legal and other consultants working on behalf of the opposition group Keep Missouri Heights Rural.

The neighborhood group, made up of homeowners in the mostly large-lot rural subdivisions near the proposed camp property, presented a petition with more than 620 signatures opposing the project.

Many of those opponents, along with supporters of the project, will get their say starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday when the public comment portion of the hearing begins.

County commissioners are expected to deliberate and possibly reach a decision later Tuesday.

Carbondale-based Ascendigo proposes to develop the site to include an 8,500-square-foot lodge for up to 24 campers and two counselors, a staff lodge of the same size that would sleep 48, a 6,800-square-foot “basecamp” building with reception and dining facilities, a 14,000-square-foot activity barn/equestrian center, and a caretaker and guest dwelling.

While Ascendigo maintains the planned camp use will have less impact than the 15 to 23 houses that could have been built on the site under previous approvals and purported developer intentions, opponents disagree.

Keep Missouri Heights Rural has raised more than $25,000 in donations to fight the plans, including hiring consultants to review Ascendigo’s representations and offer counter-arguments.

Among them is water.

Both Ascendigo’s water studies and water engineers reviewing the plans for the county agree that, while the aquifer is slow to recharge, especially during the current drought, there is an adequate water supply without negatively impacting neighboring water users.

Comparing the camp facility to the prospect of 23 houses, Bob Schultz, the land-use consultant for Ascendigo, said the difference in water use is about 9,701 gallons per day for the camp and more than 13,000 gallons per day for a residential development.

Opponents have countered the number of houses that would otherwise likely be built on the site, pointing out that it’s only approved for 15. Schultz said the previous developer had plans for at least eight more than that.

Garfield County planners have recommended approval of the project, based in part on reviews by outside engineers, including water.

County consultant Michael Erion of LRE Water concluded that the project does meet the county’s criteria and has both a legal and physical water supply.

“Long-term studies show significant recharge of the aquifer from precipitation and imported water,” he said during the hearing. Erion did note, however, that recent testing, including by the applicant, has shown the aquifer is not fully recharging. Over the course of a year, though, the camp would not cause any more impact than existing or other future development, he said.

Jonathan Kelly of Wright Water Engineers conducted an independent review on behalf of Keep Missouri Heights Rural and said there is cause for concern.

First, his review found that Ascendigo would use about 25% more water than it has claimed, and that level of use would be about 28% greater than the previously approved residential subdivision, Kelly said.

In addition, based on recent history of water well performance in the area, “you can’t guarantee the recharge rate … or the long-term viability of those wells,” he said.

The competing consultants also disagreed over the additional traffic that would be added to roads in the area from the camp development, also as compared to houses.

Additional reasons offered by opponents for the commissioners to deny the project included increased wildfire concerns, incompatibility with the surrounding residential neighborhoods, poor access to the site and the precedent of allowing what some contend is a commercial-scale operation.

Ascendigo has applied for the camp using the “educational facility” definition in the county’s land-use code as an allowed use in the rural zone district. Opponents counter it should be defined as a camp, subject to a zoning amendment.

“We believe this is the ideal location,” Ascendigo CEO Peter Bell said to kick off the applicant’s presentation. “It’s less dense (than a residential development), more environmentally friendly and more compatible than the alternative.”

Bell also spoke about the importance of the camp development in furthering Ascendigo’s mission to serve children on the autism spectrum and their families. The outdoor camp experience is a big part of that, he said.

Ascendigo has looked at other locations for the camp, but settled on the Missouri Heights property that it acquired last fall because it is rural, but also close to the valley floor and services.

Ascendigo’s chief operating officer, Dan Richardson, said the plan has been altered to make concessions to the neighbors around building design, relocating the main entrance and redirecting traffic away from nearby residential roads, and minimizing outdoor lighting.

The camp itself is expected to have a maximum of 100 people on site on peak days during the 24-day summer camp, and no more than 80 during non-peak times. Special fundraising events on two days of the year might draw about 150 people, Richardson said.

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

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