Gateway Resort wins air tour approval

Gateway Canyons Resort owner John Hendricks made a rare appearance to testify at a county hearing, then watched his proposal for commercial air tours take flight.

The Mesa County Commission, after a four-hour hearing Tuesday, approved the resort’s request to offer guests air tours in fixed-wing airplanes and in helicopters.

The commission’s unanimous approval did not come without some controversy. One of the Mesa County Planning Commission members, Mark Bonella, chose to testify before the county commission and stopped just short of calling Hendricks, the founder of the Discovery Channel, a liar.

“There’s much more than an air tour service going on here,” Bonella told the county commission.

He accused Hendricks of violating his existing permit with the county, which limits the use of Hendricks’ private airstrip, 40789 Colorado Highway 141, to the flying of just family and friends. Bonella said during the planning commission’s hearing in Gateway last month, when the commission voted 4-3 against Hendricks’ plan for air tours, that resort staff testified the long-range plan is to run an air-taxi service that would fly guests to ski resorts and other destinations throughout the year.

“Bottom line is the testimony (given by Hendricks and resort employees Tuesday) is largely different than what we heard (at the planning commission hearing),” Bonella said after the hearing.

During the meeting, Hendricks denied any change in story. He accused the naysayers of his proposed air tours of being disgruntled ex-employees and Gateway residents with whom he has other, unrelated disputes.

After the meeting he added he was disappointed a member of the planning commission would make remarks in a public forum without talking directly to him previously.

Hendricks said he attended Tuesday’s hearing, the first county hearing he has attended
since 2005, because he wanted to quell some of the “wild speculation that was ratcheting up” among Gateway residents.

“I didn’t expect this,” he said of Tuesday’s hearing.

Several other residents spoke during the meeting and expressed a slippery-slope concern.

“If you give him the full inch now, he will take the full mile later, and we will never have any peace in Gateway,” said Lynne Cranson, a Gateway resident.

Others attempted to redirect the air tour’s proposed base of operations, Hendricks’ backyard, to a Bureau of Land Management-controlled air strip.

“The real issue here is not air tours,” said former Gateway fire chief and current Gateway resident Don McLaughlin. “I think it is a real good idea.”

However, said McLaughlin and many other Gateway residents, there are alternatives that would not infringe upon residents.

John Williams, general counsel to Hendricks, said acquiring the rights to operate a private air service off a BLM runway is problematic and could take years to get the operation off the ground.

Susan Bowes was the resort’s greatest detractor. She said Hendricks’ proposal is outrageous and would wreck the tranquil lives of Gateway residents.

“Remember Hendricks is an out-of-state developer,” Bowes said. “He doesn’t live here like we do.”

But he invests more money than most people do. After the meeting he spoke about the resort and its future.

“We think the resort this year is on track to have revenue of $4 million, and we will spend $6 million,” Hendricks said.

The resort, which opened in 2005, will not make money for another three to four years, he said. This year the resort is focusing on completing its Experius Academy, and next year operations will “really start in earnest,” he said.


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