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Gondola variance first in long list before work begins

by Jane Stebbins

BRECKENRIDGE – Although Breckenridge planning commissioners approved a variance request to allow a gondola to cross protected wetlands on Peak 8, actual construction of the 4,330-foot long lift probably won’t begin for at least another two years, said Rick Sramek, vice president of mountain operations for the resort.

The gondola is merely one facet of the proposed improvements to the Peaks 7 and 8 area bases. Town planners are considering changes to the 1985 master plan that would allow development of commercial, lodging and retail space at the base of Peak 8, small inns at the base of Peak 7 and large homes south of the existing administration building. Ski area officials also hope to develop the Watson and Sawmill parking lots in town, located between Ski Hill Road and French Street at the northwest end of downtown.

Monday night’s approval merely means the resort’s gondola can cross the Preventive Management Area (PMA), an area delineated by biologists as significant to the ecosystem health in the area. To obtain the approval, the resort was required to prove work there would not significantly degrade the wetlands and that there is no other alignment alternative.

“We still have a long way to go,” Sramek said after Monday’s special meeting. “But this opens the doors and allows us to come in with a request for a permit to construct the gondola. A lot of issues still need to be addressed.”

As proposed, the gondola would start in the Watson parking lot, go up Shock Hill to the new Shock Hill development, angle southwest through the PMA to the base of Peak 7, then jog south to Peak 8. Engineers examined the feasibility of other routes, including one that uses the Shock Hill turn station but parallels the wetlands to Peak 8; a second running up Ski Hill Road; and another beginning at the base of Four O’Clock Run and following the ski trail up the mountain.

The route from Shock Hill to Peak 8 was deemed unworkable because it likely would have more significant impacts than the proposed alignment to the north. The Ski Hill Road alignment was abandoned because it would require permission from 27 homeowners and might require the town to use its powers of eminent domain to obtain easements. The alignment up Four O’Clock ski run also was deemed unworkable because it would require too many turns in the lift.

To obtain the variance permit, resort officials had to provide an outline of mitigation efforts addressing vegetation and habitat, wildlife, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, water quality and recreation. Other documents presented Monday included a construction and operations schedule and “voluntary enhancement measures” that includes a conservation easement on a piece of land north of the wetlands, installation of signs on the ground and in gondola cabins and promises of monetary assistance to help town trails specialists funnel the numerous social trails in the area onto one primary trail.

Mitigation efforts proposed to take place during construction include educating workers about the boreal toads in the area, halting construction and testing activity during elk migration, digging two – and possibly four – of the eight tower holes by hand, removing trees over snow and pouring concrete and installing towers by helicopter. Fences will be installed to prevent silt from entering the wetlands, herbicides and pesticides will be prohibited and noxious weeds in the corridor will be pulled by hand.

Each tower hole is to be dug and immediately filled with concrete before the next hole is dug, said ski area consultant John Humphreys. The proposal says the area will be revegetated within 72 hours.

The towers, ranging from 40 to 60 feet in height, will be made of galvanized steel that require no painting and little maintenance. Cabins will be a neutral color – likely, taupe – to better blend into the surroundings, and screens will be installed on windows to prevent people from tossing trash into the wetlands below. Additionally, no lights will be installed on or in the cabins.

The ski resort also proposed conducting mitigation efforts after the gondola is in place, including maintaining the towers from gondola cabins, using as little lubricant as possible on the guide wheels, picking up trash in the corridor twice a year and monitoring vegetation and water quality.

Planning commissioners said they are satisfied with the proposed mitigation plans and are convinced a different alignment isn’t available.

“We had three options,” said commissioner Eric Mamula. “We could avoid this, we could minimize impacts or we could mitigate impacts. I’m not 100 percent convinced we could avoid this, but it’s minimized to the point where I think there will be degradation, but it’s not substantial degradation.”

“It’s been a long, involved process,” Sramek said. “It’s been an emotional process for a lot of people. I feel good we came to a conclusion.”

“In the end, this will be a much better project,” Mamula said. “If we hadn’t taken all this time – created the PMA, hired SAIC, hired IRIS (biologists) – this would be a joke. I think it shows the process works.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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