January 24, 2010
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.
Durango Wheel Club Managing Director