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  • Dylan Anderson

Maybe next time: Steamboat Council approves gas snowmelt for Ski Time Square, shirking climate goals

The decision allows the long-awaited project to start this year but goes against the Climate Action Plan that has been adopted countywide.

Steamboat Springs City Council said maybe next time to the Routt County Climate Action Plan Tuesday when it approved a natural gas snowmelt system as part of redevelopment in Ski Time Square, allowing the project to be advertised to contractors later this month.


Council’s 5-2 vote to move forward with the gas system ended a stretch of several delays in the project and will allow preliminary work to start this fall, with the bulk of construction happening next year. Had council not approved the gas-powered system, the project would likely have been delayed indefinitely.


“We are here and (the Urban Renewal Authority Advisory Committee) is here to encourage development at the base area. … We know we need economic development in that area,” said Council President Robin Crossan. “In the future, I would hope every project after this, we engage more fully from the Climate Action Plan, Yampa Valley Electric Association and anyone that wants to get involved with planning our future to be more sustainable.”


What started with a simple snowmelt system for this project grew into a much bigger issue in recent weeks. While the project was designed under the city’s current energy codes, council will consider updates to the code later this year that, if adopted as currently drafted, wouldn’t allow for this large of a gas-powered snowmelt system to be put in place.


Gates Gooding, the Steamboat Springs Redevelopment Authority project manager, said this is the first of what could be many projects — public and private — incorporating large expanses of snowmelt at the base area, and council’s decision could set a precedent. Further delay of the redevelopment project could also result in the delay or cancelation of private development in the area, Gooding said. The project is being funded by tax dollars earned through the Mountain URA, which was created to spur development and clean up blight around the base of the resort.


More than a dozen different people spoke during public comment with a relatively even mix of those supporting and opposing the natural gas snowmelt system. For those in support, gas is the only system that made sense and was proven, while for those opposing the system, not choosing a sustainable option now would hamper Steamboat’s ability to meet carbon reduction goals outlined in the Climate Action Plan for decades to come.


“I don’t think anyone can sit up here and say that snowmelt is consistent with climate action goals by any small stretch,” said Routt County Commissioner Sonja Macys, who said she was speaking for the entire board of commissioners with her comments to council. “I’m asking you to work with us and see if there are solutions that we can come up with that will benefit not just the current taxpayers, but the future taxpayers.”


Paul Bony with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council said approving such a system would severely hamper the city’s ability to reduce carbon use from buildings by 82% from 2018 levels, a metric in the climate action plan. He said every new addition of fossil fuel emissions was a barrier that needed to be overcome before even starting to accomplish the goals outlined in the plan.


“Other members of this community are going to have to pay for that reduction,” Bony said. “If you save folks money over here and let them do carbon emissions, someone over here has to pay for that with their own reductions before you can get to your 82% reduction.”


But others in public comment, including leadership from the nearby Kutuk and Torian Plum developments that granted easements to the city in exchange for the snow melt systems said gas was the only option that was realistic to them. While an electric system could eventually be more efficient, it isn’t proven yet and would have steeper costs upfront, they said. Others in support of the gas system stressed the safety risks not having snowmelt posed.


“Lots of great work has been done but it’s time to finish the job,” said Rich Dwyer, president of the Kutuk Homeowner Association. “We are ready to go. Respectfully, I urge you to authorize staff to bid the project and keep it moving forward as currently designed.”


“We know that natural gas works well in the Steamboat environment,” said Donn Lewis, president of the Torian Plum Homeowners Association. “The owners of Torian Plum would be unable to support any solution for snowmelt other than nature gas and if a fuel other than natural gas is mandated, Torian Plum would not be able to grant the city the easements.”


The project can’t move forward without those easements, which were granted on the condition that Kutuk and Torian Plum would get a snowmelt system in sidewalks outside their buildings and that they could pick the fuel choice for the system. Had council opted to go with a more sustainable solution for snowmelt or no snowmelt at all, those easements would have to be renegotiated.


One detail that gave some on council comfort with the climate implications of their decision was that the system could be retrofitted in the future to run off of electricity or even be attached to a larger geothermal system at the base area.


Gooding said in the coming decades more than a quarter million square feet of snowmelt is expected to be added at the base area and a geothermal system could be economically viable with grant funding available. Still, Gooding said geothermal was not realistic for the timeline being pushed for at Ski Time Square.


Council members Gail Garey and Dakotah McGinlay voted against approving the project, each saying they wanted to pursue a more sustainable solution.


“This is a legacy of this council, this is our responsibility to lead in this area,” Garey said. “This is a direct conflict with the recommendations that are set forth in the Climate Action Plan.”


“I understand we are trying to eliminate blight in the mountain area and I believe we can do so with renewable, climate-smart decisions,” McGinlay said. “It’s our job, our responsibility to really stay true to our community and uphold the commitments of the climate action plan.”


But they were unable to convince the rest of council. Crossan stressed the project has not been rushed, building codes have not been changed yet, and that sometimes economic considerations trumped all others. Council member Joella West said she felt it needed to happen now and only gas would work with that timeline.


“Right now, electricity at Ski Time Square is not a viable option from the size, the sound and the cost,” said Council member Michael Buccino. “Gas? I like cooking with it.”


With the approval of the system, the project will be put out to bid by June 16. Gooding said if a contractor is hired on schedule, work will start in September and October of this year, with the most significant construction waiting for next summer.


Top Photo Caption: The approval of a gas-powered snowmelt system as part of the redevelopment of Ski Time Square will allow the project to start this year. (City of Steamboat Springs/Courtesy)

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