Locals, land trust back Highway 9 realignment through Iron Springs
The Iron Springs conservation easement is not the pristine forested parcel it was before the pine-beetle epidemic, but the hillside open space plot has retained its natural character. In early June, the lake-front property is alive with wildflowers, animals and recreational users enjoying the bike path running through it.
It’s here the Colorado Department of Transportation officials want to put a four-lane road, rerouting and widening the existing Highway 9 to cut through the protected parcel. The $30 million proposal to complete an ongoing expansion of the Frisco-to-Breckenridge route would essentially swap the placement of the road with that of the recpath, sending traffic over a new, wider and shorter stretch of road through the Iron Springs property.
Transportation officials like the plan because it shaves half a mile off the state-maintained highway and eliminates vehicle use of the dangerous Leslie’s Curve, where the current road banks to the west alongside the lake. But perhaps more surprising is the fact that the Continental Divide Land Trust, which holds the conservation easement on the property, and a number of locals also support the proposal.
“When we first heard about this project, we (said) ‘hell no, you can’t run a highway through a conservation easement,’” CDLT director Leigh Girvin told a group of Summit County residents during a hiking tour of the property Saturday. “As we’ve gone through this process, we’ve begun to see the community benefits of this.”
It’s not a perfect plan, Girvin said, but it is better than the alternative.
The highway expansion is inevitable, but widening the road in its current position would require large retaining walls along the shores of the reservoir and several sediment capture ponds between those walls and the water to collect tainted runoff. It would also cause significant damage to the rare spring-fed wetlands on the Iron Springs property and impacts to wildlife movement in the area.
Rerouting Hwy. 9 through Iron Springs would eliminate the need for ponds and retaining walls. CDOT officials have also promised to sweeten the deal by installing separate underpasses for wildlife and the recpath and by relinquishing 12 acres along the current right of way to be adopted as open space.
The Iron Springs alternative also won the unanimous approval of the few dozen community members who attended Saturday’s tour, which included an in-depth project overview.
“All of the right organizations are working together to try to make this something that’s good and not adverse,” Breckenridge resident Debora Conway said. “I know that there’s always going to be a question about the wildlife, but if we can get it done so that it’s mindful, hopefully it works well.”
Girvin said there are mixed feelings about the idea of rerouting the popular recpath away from its current location through the shaded open space area. But officials say the underpasses and lakeside alignment will improve the system, by providing users with views of the reservoir and eliminating the need to cross the highway. If the project moves forward, the existing asphalt road will be reduced to a 12-foot paved bike path and there will be opportunities to revegetate and restore the natural look of the area.
“The new alignment … would improve recreational access to the reservoir, create a new recreation path connection between Swan Mountain Road and the Frisco recreation peninsula and likely reduce environmental impacts significantly,” assistant county manager Thad Noll told the Summit Daily in a previous interview.
It would also result in a net increase in conserved land. A total of 9 acres will be lost to the highway, but 12 will be recovered when CDOT turns over the current right of way, growing the property by 3 acres. No homes or new development will be allowed along the rerouted highway.
Views of the hillside will be impacted by the road, but aesthetics along the lake will be improved by the removal of the guardrail.
“It’s a subjective value,” Girvin said. “But we feel that it’s at least a neutral impact.”
The project is the last installment of a multi-year effort to widen the Hwy. 9 to four lanes, two in each direction, between Frisco and Breckenridge. CDOT crews are currently widening one remaining section between Tiger Road and Agape Church, a project expected to take two summers to complete.
County officials hope the work will be funded through the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program, which will distribute $1.5 billion to high-priority projects across Colorado over the next five years.
The 30-acre Iron Springs property is located northwest of Summit High School.
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