Carbondale-to-Crested Butte trail faces first test
Pitkin County’s plan for a cycling and pedestrian trail that could eventually link Carbondale and Crested Butte is facing its first big test with homeowners in the Crystal Valley.
The county wants to provide public access along the banks of the Crystal River on a spectacular 1.25-mile stretch halfway between Carbondale and Redstone. The old railroad right of way creates a well-used dirt trail right at the river’s edge.
That trail might eventually be paved and incorporated into the main biking/hiking trail or it might be preserved as a mellower dirt link, serving more as a linear park. That decision hasn’t been made yet, according to Dale Will, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program.
For now, though, the trail is going nowhere. Homeowners in the Crystal River Country Estates subdivision have blocked passage on a sliver of the trail they own on the south end.
Most homeowners in the 35-lot subdivision don’t have a problem with public access to the dirt trail, they just don’t believe it’s safe to have trail users crossing the river on their private, subdivision bridge, said Lee Hollowell, the homeowners’ association president. The bridge is too narrow for vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists to pass safely.
Hollowell said residents typically have to make split-second decisions about turning off curvy Highway 133 to avoid collisions or getting rear-ended. If numerous trail users are added to the mix, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Hollowell acknowledged there are people who support the trail and some who oppose it within the subdivision, but the clear consensus is the bridge isn’t safe enough to share.
“If we can avoid that, that’s our main concern,” he said. “It would be terrible for anyone to get hurt there.”
So the subdivision has blocked about eight feet of the south end of the trail with thick chains and private property signs. The bridge is also posted as private property.
But even the subdivision’s most outspoken critic of the county open space and trails program said public access to the dirt trail isn’t the problem. “Some of us have been deemed anti-trail. I don’t see that at all,” said Tom McBrayer, a 20-year resident. Brayer ran against Dorothea Farris for Pitkin County commissioner last year partially on a platform critical of the open space and trails program.
McBrayer said he generally believes the county is pursuing trail construction even when it poses a threat to wildlife and interferes with private property rights. The open space program, he said, “has been hijacked by trail supporters.”
Although the county hasn’t said it wants to make the dirt trail a part of the paved cycling trail, McBrayer said he is “absolutely” convinced that is the intent. “Pitkin County historically has shown that they will do whatever they want to,” he said.
Will said the program does want to provide access to the 1.25-mile trail at the property known as Red Wind Point. But he said he has no preference on whether it is part of the paved bike trail or preserved as a dirt path. He just wants public access as soon as possible.
Will noted that the open space program is seeking public comment on its proposed management plan for the Red Wind Point property, which includes 65 acres of land in addition to the trail easement. The area is about eight miles south of Carbondale and eight miles north of Redstone. The property allegedly received its name from railroad engineers because they had to wind their trains around the point and a sharp bend in the tracks.
The county purchased the land in August 2002 from Albert Frei for $740,000. Will said the property was targeted for purchase and preservation as habitat for big horn sheep in 1993, before he joined the program.
The public will be kept off the bulk of the 65 acres, specifically where the sheep hang out. The trail crosses a lower section of the property and Frei granted an easement to the county for a trail along 10 acres that he retained.
The easement allows Pitkin County to build a pedestrian trail over the Crystal River just a few feet downstream from Crystal River Country Estates subdivision’s vehicular bridge.
If the residents feel its unsafe to share their bridge, the open space program could build its own structure for between $50,000 and $100,000, according to Will. If that is the decision, Will hopes the homeowners will “shake hands” and let the project advance.
It’s not that simple, according to Hollowell and McBrayer. They said the gravel approach off of Highway 133 at their bridge isn’t big enough to accommodate parking. They contend safety issues and liability for subdivision residents would still exist even if the county builds a separate pedestrian bridge. They suggested the county should negotiate with the U.S. Forest Service to build a pedestrian bridge farther north along the 1.25-mile trail.
The subdivision residents are holding a meeting July 13 to craft a formal position to submit to the county.
Pitkin County plans to create the management plan for that property this year. Between Carbondale and Red Wind Point, the intent is to build the main trail within the Highway 133 corridor.
Pitkin County hopes to start the first phase of the trail next summer. The town of Carbondale is extending a trail out from the town to Prince Creek Road; Garfield County is considering funds to build the trail for less than one mile in its jurisdiction.
Will made a “pure guess” that the trail could be completed to the county line on McClure Pass by 2012. It would be paved to Redstone; gravel beyond.
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