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Town debates fate of snowbanks after early season storm

Epic banks cause public safety concerns

An unprecedented amount of snow in December once again prompted discussion of the snow banks on Elk Avenue at a recent Crested Butte Town Council meeting. With town staff urging the Town Council to consider public safety, the council said it needed a written policy to address how the banks are handled.




During a regular meeting held on Monday, December 17, town staff told the council that the snow banks impede public safety and recommend they be removed after a snow storm.
“We need to do something because (the snow banks) are a hazard,” Crested Butte public works director Eddy Balch said.
Several council members objected to such actions and questioned why the town should change the status quo. According to Crested Butte mayor Alan Bernholtz, the council agreed last winter during public hearings for the sidewalk ordinance that the snow banks would be taken down only if they were exceedingly tall, were in poor condition, or a storm was expected. He said he was confused as to why the issue had resurfaced.
“I’ve never seen it snow like it did last weekend, and if we weren’t looking at eight-foot snow banks we would be having a different conversation right now,” Bernholtz said. “Usually I am very supportive of the staff, but not in this case.” 
Council member Billy Rankin agreed with Bernholtz and asked why the town chose to keep the snow banks during Good Morning America’s visit, but then wanted to remove them. Rankin said he believes the snow banks add to the character of the town.
“They’re good for TV and nothing else?” Rankin questioned.
Crested Butte town manager Susan Parker said the snow banks and public safety became an issue during and after the December snowstorms, when over 40 inches of snow fell. She said a policy was needed to address such situations in the future. The snow banks became so large on Elk Avenue that traffic was affected and several near-miss pedestrian vs. automobile accidents occurred, she added.
“It’s a matter of public safety and the argument of ascetics over safety is not acceptable anymore,” Parker said.
Chief marshal Tom Martin added that the snow banks on Elk Avenue are also affecting the bus route, deliveries and parking.  Individuals using the snow banks for recreational purposes have also become an increasing problem, Martin said.
Enforcing the sidewalk ordinance has become an issue, Balch said, because the banks are contributing to the ice on the sidewalks.  The town’s sidewalk ordinance requires Elk Avenue building owners to help the town with removal of snow and ice from the public right of ways. 
“One of the best ways to remove the hazard of ice on sidewalks is to pull the banks down,” Balch told the council.
Balch also said the public works crew wanted the snow banks removed because as the street narrows it becomes tougher to plow.   “It’s their opinion to have them removed,” Balch said.
Mountain Express director Chris Larsen agreed with Balch and Martin, and said the bus service would prefer the snow banks be removed. 
“We prefer the widest street possible,” Larsen said. “People tend to park away from the banks, which makes things get smaller and smaller and harder and harder to navigate.”
Crested Butte parks and recreation director Bob Piccaro added that cutouts in the snow banks also contribute to the safety issues and to labor issues within his department. Cutouts are walkways cut into the snow banks for pedestrian access to businesses. He said the cutouts have been increasing over the years and the Town now makes almost 50 cuts along Elk Avenue.
Piccaro explained cutting the snow banks encourages jay-walking and residents/visitors do not respect the machinery used to make the cutouts, creating a potentially dangerous situation. Cutouts are not required by the Town but evolved over the years. Piccaro said plowing the cutouts and sidewalks on Sixth Street pushes back the opening of Big Mine Ice Rink and requires additional hours of labor.
“We are a little confused,” Piccaro said, referring to the town’s policy or lack thereof regarding the snow banks and cutouts. Piccaro also mentioned that street plowing often fills in the cutouts and the Parks Department has to spend additional time on them.
“Where do you draw the line for the services we provide?” Piccaro added.
Council member Reed Betz said he wanted the town to evaluate what cutouts were absolutely needed, rather than wanted, to better use staff time. “I would like to see where we need cutouts so (the Rec Department) can put their time in more important tasks like the ice rink,” Betz said.
Council member Dan Escalante added he also had no problem with ending the cutouts on Elk Avenue and asked what the businesses on the street thought of the snow banks.
Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce director Christy Matthews said the majority of businesses on Elk Avenue she had spoken with would be in favor of removing the snow banks if it was a matter of public safety. She recommended the Town Council provide a formal explanation to the businesses explaining the Town’s position on the snow banks and cutouts and what services they planned to provide.
She added that the Town had raised an expectation regarding the cutouts and some adjustment would be needed if the service were ended. Matthews also said that if the snow banks became too high it might affect tourism.
“Tourists are more likely to come back if they don’t fall down and hurt themselves because of the banks,” Matthews said.
  Local business owner Brian Schneider said he would prefer the town remove the snow banks. “I think having them gone would be nice because I would rather be skiing than cracking ice,” Schneider said.
 Bernholtz said he thought the Town should not remove the snow banks and asked,  “Why can’t we do it how we’ve been doing it for the last two decades?” 
Council members Kimberly Metsch, Escalante and Betz all agreed they would like the snow banks to remain but also wanted the Town to address the safety issues. Betz was concerned the risk would be more than the Town was willing to accept.  “I think this is a risk verses benefit question, and the risk far outweighs the benefits,” Betz said.
Council member Skip Berkshire, an advocate for keeping the snow banks, recommended creating a written policy addressing the snow banks to help eliminate confusion in the future.  Bernholtz agreed and requested staff create something and present it to the council before any decisions were made. Parker said a new policy would be presented to the council during the January 7 regular meeting.

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