Homeowners battle to alter RFTA’s trail plan | PostIndependent.com

Homeowners battle to alter RFTA’s trail plan

Opponents of a pedestrian trail along the old railroad corridor between Catherine Bridge and Hooks Lane in the midvalley have hired an attorney to help them press their case with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.The homeowners say they aren’t opposed to a trail – they just don’t think it belongs on the rail corridor south of the Roaring Fork River. Instead they want RFTA to build its 4.5-mile trail along old Highway 82, which now serves as a frontage road.Wayne Rudd, one of the concerned homeowners, said bicyclists, runners and parents pushing baby carriages are already using the frontage road heavily. The road needs to be widened to make it safe for all users, he said. He suggested adding a 4-foot shoulder on each side.Rudd said it makes more sense to build the trail on the north side of the river, where it can directly serve facilities like Crown Mountain. That park and athletic field complex in El Jebel likely will be a major draw starting next summer.”I don’t know why we have to take the last pristine river frontage from here to Grand Junction [and use it for a trail],” Rudd said.Rudd’s neighbor Jim Duke said a trail along the frontage road would also better serve population centers, like Blue Lake, the El Jebel Mobile Home Park, Sopris Village and Summit Vista. According to the design, trailer users would have to travel to Hooks Lane in the Emma area, or Catherine Bridge, along the back route into Carbondale, for access to RFTA’s proposed trail.Mike Hermes, who oversees trail construction for RFTA, said the selection of the rail corridor for the trail was for a couple of simple reasons – RFTA already owns it, and a valleywide trail has long been envisioned and planned along the corridor. This section will complete the trail from Aspen to Carbondale.The easy answers haven’t satisfied the foes. They argue that RFTA didn’t spend enough time studying the trail’s potential effects on wildlife. The corridor is a narrow strip of land between the river and public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.Duke said the trail could “threaten” habitat for deer, elk, waterfowl, blue herons and eagles. Human use could scare critters off the corridor, he said. The railroad quit using the tracks along that stretch decades ago. The land along wetlands, the river and mountainous terrain has evolved into high-quality habitat, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW).DOW wrote a letter outlining its concerns about the trail earlier this year. “The Division would recommend and strongly encourage RFTA to adopt a seasonal closure from Dec. 1 to May 1,” the DOW letter said. “This area has considerable use by deer and elk during the critical winter months, when they are most susceptible to disturbance.”Rudd noted that the Ironbridge development, farther down the river corridor, agreed during its approval from Garfield County to close its trails during heron nesting time, from mid-February to early March. He said RFTA should be held to the same standard.Hermes said RFTA received a decision called a “categorical exclusion” from the Federal Highway Administration in 2003, which waived the requirement for an environmental impact statement or environmental assessment for the trail. The highways administration reasoned that the trail would have less impact than the train used to have, and someday may again have, on the transit corridor.Nevertheless, RFTA has hired local wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky to help draft a management plan for the corridor, Hermes said. “RFTA’s gone way beyond what we’re legally required to do,” Hermes said. “We all realize that’s a very nice area and we don’t want to wreck the things we love.”Actions including partial or full closures during sensitive times for wildlife “are still on the table,” according to Hermes. He said concerned homeowners are welcome to participate in discussions that will help form the management plan.The homeowners had their attorney attend the last meeting of the RFTA board of directors. Duke said the group’s concerns were largely ignored.Rudd said he would consider litigation to block the trail if that’s what the homeowners group decides to do. However, he said, his preference is negotiating the changes.Crews will salvage the old railroad track and ties this month. Construction of the trail is scheduled to start later in the summer and conclude in October, Hermes said. He hopes to have a management plan in place by July or August.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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