Summary of Ewing Mesa Meeting with County Administration

January 24, 2010

DWC Members:
Recently I was asked to meet with the La Plata County administrative staff to discuss the proposed road through Ewing Mesa. The meeting focused on the parcel of land that is currently known as the Oakridge Development. This parcel consists of approximately 1800 privately owned acres located to the southeast of Durango on which are a considerable number of biking, hiking and equestrian trails.

The intention of the meeting was to educate me and DWC members on the status of the land and to help us understand why the county is taking the steps it has, including the much talked about letter of intent (LOI). County Manager Shawn Nau, Public Works Director Jim Davis, Planning Director Erick Aune and I spent an hour exchanging views.

Early in the meeting I stated my opposition to all development of future roads through the Horse Gulch trail system. I went on to say that I felt future traffic concerns should be addressed by developing an extensive transit system that would feature a functional bicycle commuter network. All three county officials expressed a personal desire to see the property stay as is. They also agreed that we need to move in the direction of multi-modal transportation. However, the Oakridge Development is private property on county land, and neither the county nor the city has the authority to stop development as planned. The best option would be for the city to buy the land, but that is impossible due to cost.

The reality is that the 1800-acre Oakridge Development is private property on county land and will most likely be developed and sold. Currently, Oakridge is owned by Sandra Pautsky, daughter of Noel Pautsky. Noel Pautsky was the first to allow trails to be built and accessed on his property, and Sandra is of a like mind. In fact, part of the agreement 12 years ago that has allowed us to use the trails specifically anticipated that the property would eventually be developed and the trails would be relocated.

Unfortunately, Sandra is later in life. According to Shawn, if Sandra passes her heirs are likely to subdivide and sell the property. In fact, in 2008 the property was subdivided into fifty-four 35-acre parcels to create the Oakridge Development. According to Shawn this is problematic because the county has little authority to oversee development of 35-acre (or larger) properties.

The question that Shawn wants people to ask is this: What type of development would we as a community like to see on this property and how do we work with the property owners to get there? The county believes that a 35-acre development would create a hodgepodge sprawl of buildings with substandard roadways that would dramatically alter, if not destroy, the existing trail system. Shawn pointed out that this type of development would exacerbate housing problems in the future and do nothing to solve the connectivity between Grandview and downtown Durango.

Shawn, Jim and Erick would prefer to see the property developed to encourage a mix of higher density development in conjunction with dedicated open space. This is based on the philosophy that it is better to have people living close to the city center rather than far out of town. Substantial evidence has shown bike/ped/transit-friendly cities create healthier communities with far less reliance on single occupancy vehicles, a smaller carbon footprint and numerous collateral benefits.

Shawn pointed out that properly planned future development could help Durango avoid the type of sprawl he witnessed while growing up in Phoenix. Shawn’s grandparents moved to Phoenix when the city had a population of 27,000. He and his family have witnessed what happens when growth goes unchecked and development is not properly planned out for future growth. In his opinion Phoenix is “the most bicycle unfriendly place I’ve ever lived.” He thinks Durango has an opportunity to avoid such a future if responsible development is implemented now.

The connecting road from Grandview to Durango would provide incentive for the property owners to create a higher density development closer to the city that would fall under county oversight. In Colorado the county has more say in how developments can be planned if each parcel is less than 35 acres. With some leverage over how the land is developed (albeit not much) the county would be in a position to ask that a large portion of the property be reserved for open space in order to preserve portions of the trail network. Not all of the trails in the Horse Gulch system would be saved in their current state, but a substantially larger chunk of Ewing Mesa could be preserved as is.

Shawn and Jim indicated that construction of the road from Grandview to downtown Durango would mostly be paid for by grants from the State of Colorado. It would be of modern design with wildlife underpasses and a separated bike path like the Animas River Trail. I suggested that if it were to be built it should include a transit lane and commuter cycling lanes in addition to a separated multi-use path.

The letter of intent is merely a first step in a process to explore options for a road and to create public discussion. The LOI will have the effect of pausing the Oakridge Development from proceeding rapidly because it will be in the owner’s best interest to explore the financial benefits of such a road through the property. Beyond creating a public discussion and slowing down the Oakridge Development, the LOI does not do much. Shawn has observed that there are many things that the public does not understand about what the LOI means, why it has been proposed, and what it can and can not do.

Some of the confusion over the LOI stems from the fact that there was a failure of communication between the city and county officials and staff regarding this issue. Shawn said that the county is making a strong push for better communication with the city and the public. He would like for all to know that the county is not in a strong position to do anything to effect the development of Oakridge. All the LOI does is give the county some breathing room and allow the public to have a chance to discuss this issue.

In reporting this to you I have tried to remain neutral. It is not easy to do when I am writing about something so important to me as the Horse Gulch trail system. I love Horse Gulch. I ride there whenever it is dry and it includes some of my favorite trails. The fact that the trails are accessible from several points in downtown Durango is amazingly convenient and unique to Durango. For me, the trail system is a big reason why I love Durango and why I am proud to call Durango home. This feeling is tempered with the knowledge that we live in a very desirable place that will continue to grow rapidly for decades to come. Like it or not, growth is unavoidable. It is easy to avoid this issue and put off dealing with it until tomorrow, but if we do that we place the things we value most at risk.

I do not want Horse Gulch developed. I do not want any new roads. I do want Durango to grow in a thoughtful, progressive manner so that 20 years down the road we can all recognize this town.

My takeaway from the meeting with Shawn Nau, Jim Davis and Erick Aune is that although Durango faces tough choices now and into the future we have good people thinking through these problems. I was impressed with their progressive outlook on transportation and land use as well as their reasonable methodology in addressing those issues. I feel that the Ewing Mesa/Oakridge Development issue is being handled in a methodical and thoughtful way and I think we are fortunate to have such people working on this important issue.

I agree with Shawn that it is very important that everyone have a chance to speak their mind on this issue. Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this letter.

Spencer Compton
Durango Wheel Club Managing Director

8 thoughts on “Summary of Ewing Mesa Meeting with County Administration

  1. Trails 2000 has been actively involved in the Telegraph Trail System
    with many behind-the scenes meetings, including the process of a
    potential road alignment. Over 14 year ago, Trails 2000 negotiated
    with the private property owner to secure trail easements on trails
    such as the Meadow, Telegraph, Crites, Sidewinder and Anasazi. Those
    easements were deeded to the County in perpetuity with the intention
    that if the area were ever developed, the trails would remain (perhaps
    the alignment might change). It is important to remember, we have
    those trail easements due to the generosity of the land owner. Trails
    2000 built and has maintained those trails due to the hard work of the
    community members of Durango. Our goal is to continue to work with the
    private landowner, the County, City and BLM to fortify the quality and
    quantity of trails in the Telegraph Trail System.

    If the land owner considers the sale of the property and a potential
    road alignment, we will continue to be at the table to ensure that
    there is the least trail impact possible, to mitigate for any trail
    loss and to defend the trails.

    The potential exists for the Horse Gulch Road alignment to be removed
    from the County’s Letter of Intent (LOI) but other options to
    connect Ewing Mesa are still under consideration.

    The timeline for such a project is most likely a decade away, but
    planning for the future and working together with the community is the
    intention of all involved.

    We continue to work on alternative transportation options such as the
    SMART 160 path. We were recently awarded a grant from the National
    Park Service to continue to study the alignment to one day complete
    the connection from the Animas River Trail to Bayfield.

    We welcome your comments as this long-term process continues. Your input is what
    will make this process successful. Thank you so much for your support.

  2. Just an Update for you all regarding Horse Gulch — La Plata County issued a press release yesterday releasing a revised Letter of Intent with Oakridge. The revised LOI removes the Horse Gulch and CR 237 alignments from the proposal. These had originally of Oakridge’s request, the alignments had been moved to the “lowest priority” during the last couple of months of negotiations. Given the input that we received from groups like DWC, we recently asked Oakridge whether they would consider removing them from the proposal altogether – which the owner agreed to.

    I’d just like to add my voice of thanks to Spencer as well. We had a great conversation, and DWC is very fortunate to have people like Spencer at the helm.

    Now I’ve got to get back to training for the IHBC….

  3. After also recently meeting with La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter and County Manager Shawn Nau, I was given the same arguments for signing the letter of intent as you were–but I understood how they were trying to mislead me with smokescreens and mirrors.

    As drafted, the current letter of intent between La Plata County and Oakridge Energy is a subjective, biased statement of how the County and Oakridge Energy wish to see development proceed from this point forward. While it will create public discussion, it will also speed up the process of developing a Grandview Connection and properties on Ewing Mesa, as it is a dedication of rights of way/easement to put in the road.

    Think about it: a road to Ewing Mesa is going to encourage and accelerate the development of all of Oakridge Energy’s parcels–no matter what they cost, where they sit, or what utilities they have. This, despite what Shawn Nau is saying that the county is not in a strong position to do anything to effect the development of Oakridge.

    These ideas of putting in the road through Horse Gulch, connecting to CR 237, and also of putting in a Grandview Connection to Ewing Mesa, was originally proposed to Oakridge Energy by Commissioner Hotter in a Sept. 22, 2008 letter. The letter of intent followed this private proposition to Oakridge Energy to take part in this action. So how does the county get away with calling a subjective, biased, statement of intended action the beginning of a public process, when it leaves no room for exploring other options to also include in the letter?

    County Manager Nau also says that the 35-acre parcels will create a hodgepodge sprawl of buildings with substandard roadways that will destroy the existing trail systems. In reality, the parcels will not sell anytime soon, because of their remote access, rugged terrain, high development costs, lack of utilities, and our current economic state. Just look at residential developments in the Grandview area already. Much of the already built cookie-cutter homes there remain vacant and of little interest to homebuyers in the currently improving real estate market.

    Nau tries to say that dense housing would allow for more open space to be locked in, but that would be mainly be open space suitable for baby strollers, joggers and casual walkers on cement or asphalt sidewalks. Real mountain bikers and equestrians have no hope of it being conducive to their interests of riding on dirt.

    Furthermore, the Three Springs Development is a dense housing development failure as my source in real estate can see by the lack of closings taking place there. Visit the neighborhood and you???ll see noxious weeds are prevalent and the large amount of open space is swamp with paved paths for joggers. No room for mountain biking or horses. Trees and landscaping are almost nonexistent.

    Just because the county and state want Grandview to be the center of the county, it does not mean that people are going to buy into it and start moving there. It has to be desirable to people first, and then they will come.

    Dirt trails, on the other hand, are highly desirable to the demographic that lives in or wants to live in our area. A separated trail proposed to run adjacent to the proposed Grandview Connection would resemble the Animas River Trail, and would detract from the rural wildness, dynamics, character and feel of the trails that currently exist around Grandview Ridge.

    A Grandview Connection road will also be an economic blunder for La Plata County and its bicycle related businesses.

    How many people live in Durango or visit Durango specifically because of places like the Grandview Ridge and Horse Gulch trail systems? A lot. In comparison, how many people live in or visit Durango specifically to drive on its roads? Not many would admit to such a desire.

    Bikers, hikers and equestrians use the Grandview Ridge trail system because of its solitude and true nature as a world-class trail made of dirt???not asphalt, not cement.

    Commissioner Hotter and County Manager Nau also say that a Grandview Connection would provide incentive for the property owners to create a higher density development closer to the city that would fall under city or county oversight. Parcels divided into 10 acres or less would fall under the city???s oversight, or the county would oversee larger parcels, said Nau.

    Alas, I think this Grandview Connection wouldn???t create any incentive for smaller parcels, as Oakridge Energy???s owner, Sandra Pautsky, has already tried that.

    After Pautsky worked with the city to obtain permission for small parcels, she gave up in 2005, citing the ineptness of city officials. She instead decided to get her property platted with the 35-acre parcels, and therefore wouldn’t have to work with either the City or the County to build on them. Some of her parcels include parts of the Crites Connection, Old Car Loop and the top of the Telegraph and Anasazi trails.

    We would be best off with 35-acre parcels, much of which would not end up being developed. If trails are eliminated in the 35-acre area, there is plenty of room to the east for additional mountain bike and horse trails.

    Agriculture could also be implemented on 35-acre parcels. People could have cattle, chickens, and horses or even raise crops and have big gardens.

    An argument for the Grandview Connection was made stating that the road would provide faster access to the hospital. This is another smokescreen and mirrors statement made to bolster the idea of putting a road in there. It???s a statement that denies the natural topography of the Grandview Ridge and how this geography deters the construction of a fast route by any measure of allowable traffic speed or flow. Laws of physics would disallow a fast flowing road through the area based on the slopes and features of Big Canyon and Grandview Ridge. Anyone who???s been on the trails out there can see this for themselves. I am sickened by the thought of a road extending down through Horse Gulch just for the sake of having an unnecessary route in between Grandview and Durango. That???s what Commissioner Hotter wants.

    Lastly I???d like to address the claim that an alternative route to the hospital is needed in the event of a bad accident on 160 shutting the entire highway down. Emergency responders can still use the shoulder of the highway in the event of an accident; that???s why they run code with lights and sirens. Plus you can???t tell me that emergency responders couldn???t just as easily backtrack north, go right up Florida Rd., go south down County Road 234, and back west down highway 160 to the hospital within the Golden Hour of emergency medical treatment. Helicopters are also used for the hospital to transport patients in the event of prohibitive travel times when medical treatment is crucial in that first hour. And that???s why saying that the road as a safety measure is more smokescreens and political posturing for the purpose of aiding the developers, not the taxpayers, and certainly not the economy.

    Better projects exist for the use of this 21 and a half million dollars in the long run. Taxpayer funded projects should benefit and be supported by the majority in the community, and not just county officials backed by an energy company.

    Many of us would like to see the Oakridge property bought for open space, but in this current economic climate the reality is that there aren???t a whole lot of people, organizations or governmental entities that have the 40 plus million dollars to throw down on this piece of paradise.

    Spencer you must lift yourself up from the influence of a table stacked with county officials. Together we can unite with other trail users here to preserve the wildness of what we have around Grandview Ridge.

    Join me if you can on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the County Commissioners meeting to voice opposition to this letter of intent to destroy the rural character of our trails.

    Adam Howell
    [email protected]

  4. Two important action items for the Durango Community is:
    Staying involved with the planning process. Both in terms of City Council and County Manager meetings. Make sure the word is out about every meeting pertaining to the development. Maybe send a letter to the Pautsky family also.
    Number two: Each cyclist needs to represent the cause in a courtious and civil manner, both on the trail, and at the meetings. No yelling. State your case with facts and figures, not just emotions. Be super-courteous out on the trail. That hiker or biker that you just scared or pissed off may be from Oakridge, or a land owner!!
    Good luck. If I can help, I will. I value these trails also. They are a major part of living in the four corners!
    My .02
    Farmington, NM

  5. I would think that with all the cyclists in town, we as a community should be able to purchase several of these parcels. I’d throw in a couple hundred bucks for sure. I realize that development is bound to happen, but money talks and Durango is a town filled with people who have money. Lets buys that land and call it Paradise Gulch. I bet Oprah would throw down a few bucks.

  6. Thank you for the update Spencer. I think all of us share your desire to preserve Horse Gulch as is. I used to serve on the county planning commission and learned a lot about development patterns. Unfortunately, new roads are accelerators for additional development. They are usually built for practical purposes like connecting downtown to grandview or as a “bypass”. Camino del Rio in town was originally built as a truck bypass to relieve truck traffic through town. The good access provided by the road and the presence of nearby development creates a self-perpetuating cycle – each project justified by prior projects. This is happening now along 160 through Grandview as Kellie Hotter recently voted to approve a project that isn’t allowed under the land use code. Her justification was that the hospital and 3 Springs makes the land use restrictions in Grandview out of date. So even with the good intentions of County staff, over the long-term a road will likely increase pressure to develop not just Ewing Mesa, but all along the corridor, with even public lands susceptible as exchanges are made to facilitate “close-in” development and preserve “pristine” areas farther away.

    I know it’s a long-shot, but I’d like to see our community (not just the City, but city+county residents) buy Ewing Mesa and other Horse Gulch properties for public use. I know new taxes aren’t popular, but I personally think a HG-only campaign that sunsets when complete could succeed.

  7. Spencer, thank you for this great summary! It is hugely helpful in educating all of us about the process and issues involved . I think it’s really important to keep a balanced perspective (as you have) on such an emotional issue. Like you, I have a negative gut reaction to any talk of roads and development in Horse Gulch/Ewing Mesa, yet I also appreciate the County’s progressive view and their attempt to proactively minimize harm. Develpment of the Mesa into 35 acre parcels would be catastrophic in my view and almost surely prohibit all future public access (ie: Lake Durango, Durango Ridge Ranch, Edgemont, etc). I am also a FIRM believer in participating in public process. The only way our voices will be heard is if we show up for the discussion. Thanks for leading us down that trail, Spencer.

  8. This is a very thoughtful and thought provoking piece, Spencer. Thank you so much for not only meeting with the County to give them input, but for representing and communicating the interests of DWC and other cyclists. Having lived in Phoenix between 1962 and 1976, I agree with Shawn’s perspective on how unchecked growth ruined what could have been a thoughtfully planned cityscape. The bottom line here is that unless these parcels can be purchased and or dedicated for preservation, there’s little that can be done to preserve the the trail system there as it currently exists. Nonetheless, we should make every effort to remain part of the process so that, as far as possible, the least amount of damage and the greatest good can be realized.

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