It’s time to develop a regional plan to limit the number of large special events in the upper valley on busy summer weekends, the county’s open space and trails board agreed Thursday.
Cindy Houben, the county’s director of community development, advised the board she is calling for a new working group of officials from the city of Aspen, the town of Snowmass Village and the U.S. Forest Service to cooperatively tackle what she sees as a growth problem.
She wants the jurisdictions to coordinate their various permitting policies and perhaps create a quota and scoring system for special events, especially those that rely on the county’s trail system.
“At some point you’re going to set up a situation where it is not fun to be here anymore during those times,” Houben said.
A majority of the Open Space and Trails Board agreed with her approach, noting the heavy use of county trails during special events on peak summer weekends.
John Armstrong, the county’s open space and trails ranger, said there are now special events booked on three consecutive weekends or holidays in July, which is Aspen’s busiest month.
“Everybody wants the prime time,” Armstrong told the board.
Each of the events will send packs of runners down the Rio Grande Trail below the Aspen post office.
The events include the Boogie’s Diner Buddy 5-Mile Race on Thursday, July 4, the Aspen Valley Marathon on Saturday, July 6 and the Komen Race for the Cure on Saturday, July 13.
Armstrong said the experience for other trail users can be diminished during such events, which are increasing in “scale, frequency and intensity.”
And he said there is now little difference — in terms of impact — between a professionally-managed event benefiting a nonprofit organization and a commercial event designed to turn a profit.
Dale Will, the director of the open space and trails program, agreed with both Armstrong and Houben.
“The trails belong to the citizens of this valley,” Will said. “And while we like to share them with visitors and share them with special events, we don’t want to lose our own access to them and have them become sort of an amusement park or a profit maker for an industry that is just taking off.”
Anne Rickenbaugh, a member of the open space board who lives in Aspen, concurred.
“What we’re dealing with here is recreation as a business on a very large scale,” she said.
“This is a problem screaming out for limits,” agreed board member Hawk Greenway, who noted that “you can always tell those places with an over-active chamber of commerce.”
Both Aspen and Snowmass Village see special events as a way to boost local businesses and generate sales tax revenue.
But there seems to be a disconnect between the towns and the county.
“Aspen and Snowmass Village are promoting and courting special events while not communicating with county and open space staff, although many of the events affect or overlap each other’s jurisdictions,” wrote Armstrong in a memo to the open space board.
Houben plans to bring in a planner from Durango, Gabe Preston, to present to local officials the results of a recent study he did on the impact of special events on trails in Summit County.
The study included a methodology to review special events based on the likely “level of service” on a trail, which is similar to how traffic studies are structured.
Editor’s note: This story was published in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News.