In its bucolic setting, Missouri Heights rises over 1,000 feet above the valley floor. It’s a place without much noise or light pollution; home to ranches, farms, small residential subdivisions and equestrian facilities.
Presently, Garfield County is reviewing plans by Ascendigo Autism Services for a 126-acre recreation/education complex in Missouri Heights and is awaiting reports on potential impacts to water, fire, traffic, dust, noise and light pollution. The Carbondale and Rural Fire Department was not available for comment by The Sun’s press deadline.
The development plan includes: a base camp headquarters and other structures totaling 37,800 square feet plus a guest cabin and an equine therapy center.
Keep Missouri Heights Rural (KMHR) opposes the project as being too large, a wrong fit for the area as well as environmental concerns.
The county review process begins with a pre-application conference, then the detailed site plan submission and staff review, followed by the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners setting public hearings and making the final decision.
Keep Missouri Heights Rural (KMHR)
The neighborhood group organized in the summer of 2020, when residents first learned of Ascendigo’s plans. KMHR is adamantly opposed to the complex, citing three main concerns: fire, water, and community.
David Aguilar, a leader of the group, asserts that the project is business/commercial and thus not permitted under current zoning and land use codes. The area is considered rural/residential and KMHR is concerned that this development will open the door for additional large-scale enterprises.
“People moved here for the rural beauty, and piece by piece we’re losing that,” Aguilar stressed. KMHR is working with a water engineering group, a fire threat study company and a traffic engineering group to assess potential impacts.
The area surrounding Missouri Heights has historically been ravaged by wildland fires: Lake Christine, Panorama and the Coal Seam event that threatened Glenwood Springs. This past summer saw some of the largest blazes in the state’s history, including the Grizzly Creek inferno, and few can forget the 1994 South Canyon fire which took the lives of 14 firefighters.
Aguilar also bemoaned what he described as “a lack of communication” by Ascendigo with area residents. Missouri Heights has been in the middle of community/developers conflicts before. It has faced situations that were ultimately denied, such as the Hunt Ranch and the Dragonfly projects.
The Garfield County Zoning code, article 15, defines educational facilities as “Buildings and uses for instruction or research activities associated with an academic institution that has curriculum for technical or vocational training that may be, but is not limited to, kindergarten, elementary, secondary, or higher education, including residential facilities for faculty, staff, and students.”
Missouri Heights Resident Holly McClain said she welcomes everyone, but her major concern is water, especially when it comes to fighting fires.
Ascendigo Autism Services
Ascendigo’s mission is “to elevate the spectrum by empowering people, inspiring lives and shattering expectations.”
Chief Operating Officer Dan Richardson, also Carbondale’s mayor, detailed Ascendigo’s scope. “Our clients are very diverse for our three core programs. For summer camp, they are largely kids — ages seven to 18 — but roughly 25 percent are adults too.”
Richardson said the project “allows us to custom design facilities for individuals with autism so that they can thrive in a more conducive environment, which is quite rare. This site allows us to be close to services and amenities and capitalize on recreational activities such as horseback riding, hiking, climbing and more.”
According to Richardson, the organization is reaching out to neighbors to work together, responding to concerns about access to trails and walkways, potential light pollution, traffic, and water and fire concerns. “We have to integrate with the community.” He asserts that the plan will have less impact than the alternative of a housing development.
Regarding water, Richardson said that Ascendigo is planning for “typical domestic water use, irrigation of horse pastures, a playing field (although we are exploring artificial turf), and landscaping, as well as irrigation control structures to help optimize irrigation and provide other sensory benefits for our participants, which is an important component to supporting individuals with autism.”
In addition, Ascendigo states on a webpage dedicated to the project, that it has “no plans to lease the property to other organizations” and “will not seek tax-payer support.”
Richardson also noted that other nonprofits and businesses operating in Missouri Heights include WindWalkers, Colorado Mountain College, the Missouri Heights Schoolhouse, Strang Ranch, Cedar Ridge Ranch, Crystal Springs Ranch, the gravel pit, and many short-term rental properties.
Ascendigo insists that their project falls under the Garfield County rural zoning permission for education and reports that adjacent property owners have been consulted.