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Fire mitigation could impact sightlines more than homes

JANE STEBBINS

BRECKENRIDGE – Danny Middleton, owner of 26 mining claims atop Gibson Hill, plans to erect podiums high in the trees next week to show town and county officials that the houses he’d like to build won’t be visible from the valley below.

But how the fire mitigation plan he ultimately chooses will affect sightlines has yet to be determined.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s best up there,” said Chris Hawkins, county manager of current planning. “It’s a high wildfire hazard area and an area that’s visually impactful. We need to balance the best fire mitigation effort in light of the visual issues.”

The development, originally called Gibson Ranch and now named Eureka Estates, has been controversial from the start. Initially, Middleton wanted to build 20 homes on each mining claim; he now is exploring the idea of a planned unit development (PUD) zoning that would cluster homes along roadways.

The major concern Breckenridge officials have with the project is the potential that homes will be visible from the valley below.

Although the property is in unincorporated Summit County, the Joint Upper Blue Master Plan discourages such things as ridgeline development to protect the forest backdrop from the valley below.

Middleton said he will erect the podiums to show how the houses – and the fire mitigation they’ll require – won’t affect views from the valley. Fire mitigation involves thinning trees to reduce fire danger, but it sometimes opens up the forest so homes can be seen from below.

Such was the case of homeowner Bob Collins, who cut down numerous trees on his property in the name of fire mitigation. The house is now highly visible from the valley.

Some homes Middleton proposes to build are on 20- and 30-degree slopes.

On 20-degree slopes, county code requires homeowners to thin trees 47 feet from the home, said county fire mitigation officer Patti Maguire.

She said she doesn’t know if that mitigation will result in visual impacts to the valley below, and she said numerous factors come in to play to determine if 47 feet is adequate to protect the home from fire.

“It depends on the kind of fire it is,” she said. “Fire mitigation needs to be enough so firefighters can get in there and adequately protect the home.”

Normally, Maguire visits individual homesites and evaluates the fire danger and the homeowner’s needs, then makes recommendations as to what procedures they should take. She takes into account that people might want a tree in front of their bathroom window for privacy, but perhaps not in front of a living room window.

Hawkins said Middleton could opt to conduct a subdivisionwide fuel reduction project, instead.

“(Mitigation) lot by lot would be typical if he got variances and built,” Hawkins said. “We also have a required forest management plan to see how the health of trees relates to defensible space. The forest area is very important in keeping with the character of the area. We want to make sure it’s in a healthy state.”

Maguire said a subdivision-wide project would result in a lot of trees cut.

“If you have 200 trees per acre, that would be 25 percent of the trees,” she said. “On 93 acres, that alone would make a visual impact. You’re going to notice that on that hillside. That’s a forest reconstruction plan. They need to be careful what they ask for; they might just get it.”

Hawkins said he has no idea what such a project would look like once completed.

“It could be pretty impacting,” he said. “But we will not be recommending a full-scale logging operation.”

He plans to research the best options before the issue comes before the Joint Upper Blue Planning Commission.

Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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