The Silverthorne Town Council tonight is expected to take another step toward forcibly acquiring private property needed to extend the Blue River Trail.
Council members will consider a resolution intended to clarify specific aspects of a previous resolution the town passed in 2011 that granted it the use of eminent domain to acquire easements along the Blue River Trail. Since that resolution has passed, the town has gone through litigation and a special election regarding the private properties in question.
Assistant town manager Ryan Hyland said this latest resolution "updates the slight changes in alignment to the trail and acknowledges the outcome of the litigation by further defining what the overlay is that's needed."
The Blue River Trail project is a long-standing one, the construction of which goes back as far as the 1980s, developing in segments over the years. The trail runs through Silverthorne at an approximate length of three miles from Silverthorne Elementary to the Dillon Dam, where it then connects with a countywide paved trail system. Much of the trail is paved, 10 feet wide and ADA accessible, for non-motorized use. The latest portion of the path that the town hopes to develop sits between Willow Grove Open Space, near Mesa Drive, and town hall.
Most of the segment 5 path runs through an easement along the river, is unpaved and used as a walkway. Town plans call for the path to be paved or converted into a boardwalk in parts, which would make it a multi-purpose recreational trail, allowing for bicycles and other types of traffic.
"The community has seen the Blue River Trail as being the most recreational amenity for its citizens for a number of years," said Mark Leidal, community development director for the town, citing past town surveys.
Owners from seven of the nine properties along segment 5 of the trail voiced opposition to the development plans. A litigation process in early 2012 brought up specifics regarding what exactly the town was allowed to do in a public walkway easement. The judge ruled that "public walkway" did not include bicycles.
"We have the rights to install a public walkway and maintain it, but we don't have the rights to install and maintain it in a way that bicycles could use," Hyland said.
For the town, this means that in order to complete the project, it must layer another easement on top of the existing public walkway easement that would allow for bicycle use. This is referred to as "vertical rights," meaning no additional land beyond the original easement is required.
In a few locations, the town has also expressed a need to expand slightly out of the current easement and looks to acquire these "horizontal rights" from property owners.
In these cases, the property will remain in possession of the original owners, but the town will have certain rights on it.
"They have to maintain the rights to allow people to flow through there, but they own the property and it's their property," Hyland said.
While several of the owners of the properties in question have settled with the town, some have not. In addition to the litigation process they gathered enough signatures on a petition to call a special election proposing to revise the town charter to limit the use of eminent domain. If changed, the town would have been required to ask for voter permission before exercising eminent domain. The amendment was defeated 612-288.
"I think everyone acknowledges that eminent domain is not a fun way to have to get a project done, but in some cases, unfortunately it's a necessity to meet that community goal," Hyland said. "The council has always seen eminent domain as a tool of last resort."
Charles Crowley and his wife, Virginia, own one of the property lots along segment 5 of the trail. He has been fighting against its development and said he will continue to fight.
"We don't think they have the right to do this," he said.
Crowley said that developing the trail behind his house into a bicycle trail will not only affect the value of his property, but change the way that he and his family can use the land.
"We bought that place because we could walk down to the river. We could walk to the shore of the river on our property, and that's the whole key to it," Crowley said.
He's also worried about the impact of having more people come through his property.
"It's stressful because people walk through there now, (about) 20 people a day, walking their dogs, but if we get bikes coming through, my 2-year-old grandson is not going to be able to play out in my backyard," he said.
Though he said he is tired of the effort that comes with fighting the issue, he will continue to do so.
"It's going to affect our lifestyle and our property values. They're not going to compensate us enough. They can't give us enough money to account for what they're taking from us," Crowley said. "We don't want the money. We just want peace and quiet."