Concerns with Gothic Road traffic impacts
By Toni Todd
The Gunnison County Planning Commission recently held a public hearing to discuss a request for a permit from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) to host weddings and conferences at the Gothic Townsite in summer. RMBL is also seeking approval to expand winter use in the area in order to increase education and research opportunities.
Property in an area known as Schofield Park was acquired by RMBL 10 years ago. A cabin on this site has been used since then to house scientists. North Pole Basin, also acquired by RMBL several years ago, has a conservation easement on it, held by the Crested Butte Land Trust. The improvements RMBL proposes impact those two areas.
The North Pole Basin permit would allow up to 3,000 square feet of construction spread across six structures. Schofield Park improvements would add up to 2,500 square feet, split between two structures.
“In 2015 we received permission to increase the summer population from 160 to 180,” said RMBL executive director Ian Billick. “We have also been hosting weddings in summer and renting cabins to scientists in the winter.” Billick explained that RMBL is essentially looking to catch up with what they’re already doing by acquiring a formal permit.
“We don’t have plans to replace the existing structure on the Schofield property,” said Billick. That building, he said, is 750 square feet. “It’s a confusing issue because currently all of the cabins in Schofield Park are small, under 1,000 square feet. If we were to build a 2,500-square-foot structure, it would clearly be out of place. However, the county allows people to pull permits up to 5,000 square feet without additional review, so I’m not certain people know how to think about this one. If there was a move to limit building sizes in Schofield, we would support and participate in those limits.”
Billick garnered support from Noel Durant, executive director of the Crested Butte Land Trust, who confirmed that RMBL’s plans are “consistent with the conservation easement in place” on the North Pole Basin property. There are still large details to be worked out about public access and parking in North Pole Basin, said Billick. While those issues go beyond the scope of the current request, they were discussed as an important pending issue to resolve.
Assistant Gunnison County community development director Neal Starkebaum expressed concern about the addition of summer events, increased use in winter and the impact those are likely to have on the area. Billick insisted the scale would not increase as a result of these permits beyond what RMBL is currently hosting. The heaviest impacts on the area, he said, are August through November.
Assistant Gunnison County manager Marlene Crosby suggested that bussing people to Gothic for a wedding isn’t likely to increase impacts much, but she suggested that more discussion is needed regarding ancillary traffic that could come in addition to that. Crosby said the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) would review use of the road in winter, and that the 2009 Travel Safety Plan may need to be updated to address increased usage.
Currently, the road is groomed for fat biking. RMBL is requesting to use the road once weekly vis snowmobile to bring in supplies. Starkebaum said additional snowmobile use would not require BOCC review.
The Planning Commission asked for more information on how RMBL will manage safe travel to Gothic in winter and how they will avoid creating congestion problems. They also requested RMBL provide more information about potential impacts of their proposals on summer traffic, especially considering the road is at full capacity now in the summer.
In general, there was a desire to understand how the application fits within the larger context of managing numbers in the valley, which points to a broader strategy for managing visitor impacts countywide. Billick said RMBL would participate in developing any long-term plans that may emerge. He noted the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee, recently formed by the county to address such issues.
“The BOCC will meet next week to discuss how they want to handle motorized winter access in the Gothic corridor,” said Billick. “That will set the stage for a decision on how motorized access by RMBL to Gothic is managed.”