Opinion from Small: Summit County’s promise to protect the environment wasn’t ironclad
In 2010 Summit County “informally” requested that the Colorado Department of Transportation look at a realignment of Highway 9, north of the high school, to run the road through a conservation easement of protected open space called Iron Springs. Iron Springs stretches from the high school north to the large curve where Hwy. 9 bends west toward Frisco. The open space parcel has a recreational trail on it, historic gold placer mining cobble piles and a large perpetual spring, also called Iron Springs.
In 2000, CDOT initiated an environmental impact statement to widen Hwy. 9 to four lanes from Frisco to Breckenridge. The draft EIS was completed in May 2002, and the Final Record of Decision was signed by the Federal Highway Administration on Feb. 20, 2004. Hwy. 9 is approved for four lanes in the existing right of way (ROW), which is 120 feet wide at Farmers Korner, expanding to 200 feet wide along Dillon Reservoir.
On Aug. 12, 2002, the Board of County Commissioners of Summit County (BOCC) approved a grant agreement between the county and the State Board of the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund (GOCO) for the Iron Springs Open Space Land Acquisition Project, with terms and conditions limiting use of the parcel. On Feb. 18, 2003, the BOCC agreed to buy the Iron Springs tract for open space, with terms and conditions limiting use of the parcel. On June 9 that year, the BOCC granted to the Continental Divide Land Trust (CDLT) a deed of conservation easement to Iron Springs Open Space with 14 pages of terms and conditions protecting for perpetuity the “Conservations Values” of the parcel.
The terms and conditions expressed by the BOCC in the conservation easement deed to CDLT are very specific, protecting “Conservation Values” (stated 13 times), protecting scenic and natural values, protecting the important undeveloped buffer to national forest lands, all to be preserved and maintained in perpetuity. The CDLT is responsible to “permanently preserve and protect irreplaceable open space” and “prevent any use of the Property that will significantly impair or interfere with the Conservation Values of the Property.” Prohibited uses named in the easement agreement include paving, asphalting, soil disturbances, signs and the transfer of rights of access, expressly prohibiting any development of the property.
The realignment of Hwy. 9 through Iron Springs will require a 35-foot road cut, a 120- to 200-foot right of way, a 4 percent grade, signage, six lanes of asphalt, concrete and soil disturbance. Conservation values are by definition the protection of wildlife, open space, undisturbed lands, with the creation of a buffer limiting the intrusion of development into areas that are naturally significant. Proponents of the highway say community benefits compensate for the loss of conservation values, but community values are never mentioned in the conservation easement agreement. Community values are different from conservation values; a community can value a four-lane highway or a bike path, but a conservation value does not apply to man-made developments. Proponents would trade Iron Springs land for off-site ROW land currently covered with asphalt that the developer promises to restore by removal of a guardrail and preserve as a bike path. An enlightened community could look at conservation values as community values.
For 50 years the Hwy. 9 ROW has existed in its current alignment; more than 10 generations of elk know where the road is. The proposed alignment through Iron Springs would go through the elks’ critical winter habitat, where the elk water at Iron Springs, where the elk have a sheltered wind break, in a southern exposed grazing area. The developers have proposed an escape tunnel for the elk — not one but three escape tunnels. Each tunnel — under six lanes of asphalt and a center median — would be over 120 feet long. Only a faithful circus-trained elk would venture into those tunnels.
The question we must ask is why Summit County would grant a very restrictive and protective conservation easement deed on Iron Springs in 2003, then a mere seven years later in 2010 “informally” ask CDOT to realign the highway through Iron Springs. The county made promises to GOCO and the people of Colorado when it purchased Iron Springs, to protect it as open space. The county made promises to the voters when it used tax dollars in the purchase of Iron Springs, to protect it as open space. The county demanded assurances that the CDLT would defend the open space for eternity when it added a conservation easement on Iron Springs.
Please call and tell the Summit County Board of County Commissioners to change course and stop this development now. Support the Defense of Iron Springs Open Space.
Robert Small lives in Silverthorne.
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