Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Council to consider shift in nearby easements

Open to Verzuh Ranch trail easement relocation but…

By Mark Reaman

The Crested Butte Town Council will evaluate a proposal to move some public easements on the Verzuh Ranch open space property just east of town.

The move would eliminate a public easement along the main road linked to Elk Avenue that leads to Tony’s Trail and move it to the north edge of the property by the Paradise Park subdivision.

The proposal would also eliminate the boardwalk portion of the so-called “perimeter trail” on the southeast part of the town near the Tommy V field and shift it either to the western edge of the property or to the Ninth Street Alley.

The owners of the 40-acre Verzuh Open Space property, Wynn and Ryan Martens, officially presented the idea to the Town Council at a work session on September 21. Citing the support of several local organizations, the Martens made the case that changing the easements would enhance the wetlands on the property and protect birds nesting in the area.

They maintain that the increase in use over the years by bikers, pedestrians and runners has had a negative influence on the conservation efforts to protect the wetlands and birds living in the area. So they want to move people from using the middle of the property to using the edges of the property.

Council appeared open to considering the idea but also expressed concerns about eliminating community access to Tony’s Trail along the existing McCormick Ranch road, which is connected to Elk Avenue that has been used for 20 years and further burdening a crowded neighborhood in Paradise Park by shifting more people to that area.

“Our proposal represents change and change can be bumpy,” Wynn Martens told the council as she detailed the efforts to protect the wetlands on the property. “But this proposal is based in science-based fact and research.”

Western Colorado University wildlife biologist Pat Magee emphasized the importance of wetlands in the United States, in Colorado and in the North Valley. He said recreational use, which has been growing in Crested Butte, has negative impacts on birds and biodiversity.

High Country Conservation Advocates public lands director Matt Reed described the proposal as a “win-win” for the community. “This is a chance to accommodate wildlife and enhance habitat,” he said.

Ryan Martens said that while the proposal is tied into complex relationships, they were not asking for anything not allowed in the original annexation agreement. The idea, he said, was to enhance existing wetlands.

A staff report to the council made clear that, “if the proposal is not considered, [the Martens] assert instituting seasonal closures on all trails on their property per the language listed in the annexation agreement: ‘Trail use may be closed during nesting season, from May 1 through July 10, each year and to avoid damage during the wet season. These dates may change when better information is acquired about nesting season and the impacts of people on nesting and animals.’”

The staff report continues to explain that the town attorney “believes the language is only in relation to the boardwalk trail, but the Martens believe the language applies to all trails on the property, which includes the boardwalk trail, McCormick Ranch road and the small section of the Rec Path and bridge.”

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt asked the Martens why moving people from an existing road that would not be reclaimed and building a new trail closer to the Slate River was not going against their protection efforts.

Magee responded that while the road is the footprint, it is the activity on that road that provides the impact. “When there is activity in the center of a wetland area there is more impact. As for it being closer to the river, there are trade-offs,” he said. “This to me looks like a net gain. Moving activity from the middle to the side provides more benefit.”

“But there will still be cars on that road,” said council member Mona Merrill.

“A few cars provide less impact than a lot of people,” said Ryan Martens.

“Would the new trail get covered in water in the spring?” asked Schmidt. “The Upper Loop trail is one of the first to open in the spring for hikers and bikers and having access to it from town is very important to our community.”

Crested Butte community development director Troy Russ said the staff “agreed with the shared values of the proposal but had some concerns like that with access to the Upper Loop and general community access.”

Russ said the staff planned to meet with stakeholders involved in the proposal over the next four weeks to get a deeper understanding of the proposal. “There are a lot of positives with the proposal but some concerns,” he said. “We need some strong community outreach about this.”

“I want to consider the community impacts along with the wildlife,” said Merrill. “The road is not going away. I have concerns with pushing the community away. The strong community spirit of Crested Butte is my priority.”

“I agree,” said council member Chris Haver. “I have similar concerns with pushing the pressure to that north side of town. I am interested in learning more and see where this goes.”

“I also agree with Mona,” said council member Mallika Magner. “We all love birds and wetlands. And we also need to consider impacts to the community and an already heavily impacted part of town.”

“Overall, we need to hear more and involve the community,” said council member Will Dujardin. “We’ve put a lot of burden on the Paradise Park subdivision but I’d like to hear more.”

“I personally think it is a good idea,” said council member Laura Mitchell. “Going out Elk and over the cattle guards can be kind of frightening.”

Schmidt said generally he didn’t have a “big problem with a new trail replacing the easement as long as it can be used in the spring and is not too wet.”

Citizen Alan Peterson said he didn’t understand the request, saying, “I don’t see it being extremely beneficial to wildlife.” He asked how adding a new trail where no traffic currently exists while keeping the road where birds won’t nest makes sense.

“The optics are also concerning,” he said. “The tension between the long-time locals and the new locals who both love Crested Butte—but the new locals have money and lawyers to influence what they want. Closing the road to all except those who can afford to live there is bad optics.”

Resident Johnna Bernholtz said the impacts of the easement are already in place on the road. “I’m not entirely opposed to the idea but have concerns,” she said. “I like the idea of maintaining the perimeter trail. Putting in a new trail where none exists and impacting the busiest neighborhood in town is a concern. This needs more community input and a broader discussion.”

Community development director Russ said he and his staff would begin the community outreach, which he predicted would take about a month. They will compile the information and return to the council to continue the discussion.

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