This time, county must take proper path on right of way |

This time, county must take proper path on right of way

The Garfield County commissioners have scheduled a public hearing for Aug. 19 to reopen the discussion on whether to vacate the county’s right-of-way through Prehm Ranch.

Prior to the commission voting to vacate this right-of-way, John Martin urged his fellow commissioners to listen to the public sentiment and recognize the long-term impact of vacating this 60 foot-wide right-of-way. Commissioner Martin also supported the concept of using this right-of-way as a bike and pedestrian trail that would ultimately connect with Glenwood Springs and indirectly, with Carbondale’s trail systems.

But commissioners Walt Stowe and Larry McCown chose not to, and with a 2-1 vote made the decision to hand this county-owned right-of-way over to the development for use only by residents and guests of Prehm Ranch.

For elected officials, it is critically important to take the time to understand issues, weigh the impact of their decision and recognize the importance of the outcome.

Garfield County’s right-of-way through Prehm Ranch is one issue in our county that has been on the radar screen for months, but last week captured the attention of one of our elected officials. Mr. Stowe was quoted in the July 31 Post Independent saying, “It wasn’t even on the radar screen.” I find this an amazing statement for the following three reasons:

1. In 2001, the developer of Prehm Ranch had brought a request before the county commissioners to allow a road to be built through the Prehm Ranch property into Westbank. This request was denied by the commissioners. Seeking a way around the commissioners’ decision, the developer built the road anyway. The county filed suit against the developer in 2001 for building the road they had been previously denied.

2. Westbank residents had pleaded with the county to assist them in their dispute with the developer, specifically about an easement connected to the right-of-way through Prehm Ranch into Westbank. When the commissioners would not proactively assist them, residents found themselves in a legal battle that they ultimately could no longer afford, and moved toward settlement after spending approximately $50,000 in legal fees.

3. Finally, in the 1990s, the Westbank Homeowners Association had urged the county to build a bike-pedestrian trail on this very right-of-way to ultimately connect Westbank with the Glenwood Springs trail system. Given the ongoing discussion that has focused on this publicly owned right-of-way, I am surprised that Mr. Stowe would reference this discussion as a “new interest.”

Several concerns should be looked at in relation to this particular issue:

1. Do county residents want to lose the opportunity to ultimately extend a bike and pedestrian trail from Glenwood Springs to Carbondale? This should have been discussed months ago; sadly, the current settlement that is on the table may make it difficult for interested parties to recognize the long-term benefit that a trail would provide for many county residents.

2. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to vacate a publicly owned right-of-way?

3. Who will benefit if this county-owned right-of-way is vacated?

4. If the county does vacate our right-of-way on Prehm Ranch, will this open the door for other similar decisions? Will the same thing happen in other areas of the county, when the commissioners are pressured by a developer to conform to their desires, potentially over the best interest of county residents?

5. What has changed that would impact the commissioners’ previous decision? Certainly public interest has always been present, as evidenced by numerous meetings and a lawsuit initiated by county residents.

6. Whose duty is it to challenge an action by a developer that is perceived as improper, the county’s or a group of citizens? I would contend that it is the county’s responsibility to protect the best interests of the county and its residents. Were Westbank residents placed in the position of having to defend their best interests, along with the county’s?

I support the notion of creating a bike and pedestrian trail through the county, ultimately connecting our various town trail systems. People move to our county to enjoy the scenery it provides; a trail would offer a safe place for families to walk and ride together.

I also recognize that this is a bittersweet turn of events for Westbank homeowners who had to spend an excessive amount of money to capture the attention of their county commissioners.

I hope that this time around all of the commissioners will listen to their constituents, study the materials put before them, analyze each possible outcome and recognize the precedent established and long-term negative impact on the county that vacating this (or any) publicly owned right-of-way for an exclusive residential community could create.

Tresi Houpt of Glenwood Springs is a Democratic candidate for Garfield County commissioner.

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