County Road 5, above Ridgway, is a beloved winter thoroughfare, cherished by local recreationists.
Historically, the road has been closed to wheeled vehicles in winter; a group of local landowners has sued Ouray County for the right to plow the road that their properties abut, offering in return to finance the construction of a parallel trail, to allow winter recreation to continue.
That was, more or less, as far as it went until last Friday, Aug. 21, when a notice went out about a proposed settlement that had been reached between Ouray County and the landowners, scheduled for a public hearing earlier this week.
The meeting, which took place via Zoom on Tuesday, elicited much input from the public in advance of the get-together. Commissioners had received 115 pages of commentary by 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, and fielded numerous calls from the public during the meeting itself, which stretched almost three hours.
“During meetings where we received several days of comments two years ago,” said County Commissioner Ben Tisdel, “the consensus was that a side trail, separate from the road, be explored as a solution.”
Since then, a side-trail has been designed. Yet while there is “no doubt” that the trail is “viable,” in the words of one caller, who was one of several who had been invited to tour it, — numerous questions remained about who might be using it, and (perhaps more inportantly) when, and how safe it might be. As Ridgway resident Danika Gilbert and others noted, an increasing number of snowmobilers recreate in this region.
“There’s nothing in here addressing snowmobiles, which have gone up tremendously,” Gilbert pointed out. “Snow bikes are out there, too. Where will they be traveling?”
“They’ll be on the trail,” county attorney Carol Viner replied. “That’s why it is 12 feet” wide. Gilbert noted that the language of the agreement calls for it to be in place “for perpetuity,” yet to be reviewed only “from time to time.”
“Could we specify that it be annually?” Gilbert asked. “This is a little too vague for my liking.”
“We’re giving them (the landowners) an easement so we won’t have to revisit this other than if there are problems,” Viner answered. “There’s also a mediation provision in there, but they won’t be coming to the county each year, asking to plow. They’ll just be able to plow.”
“What happens if the road needs to be widened?” Gilbert responded. “What will happen to the trail?”
“The trail will still exist,” Tisdel answered. “If it gets widened more, there may be a mechanism where the county takes over plowing, and you go up and park at the forest boundary. Hopefully there will still be enough space for the trail and road to exist within a 60-foot easement.”
“We don’t have crystal balls, we can’t see in the future,” commission chairman Don Batchelder said. “There’s no point in complicating” the situation with hypotheticals.
But near-term hypotheticals nevertheless loomed. For example: will the road be safe for skiers and hikers?
“It seems like we’ll all be funneled, snowmobilers, skiers and walkers, into 12 feet. And if snowmobilers will be using it, none of the rest of us will,” Log Hill resident Cari Waters observed.
“I can see an issue with this down the road when the homeowners tell us we can’t even walk on the road and it leads to a kerfuffle,” a caller said. “It really will become a snowmobile trail. We can see that happening. We’ll all just have to find another place to ski. Is there anything to prevent that?”
“Not in this document,” Chairman Batchelder replied frankly. “Snowmobilers are required to drop to 10 mph when they’re within 100 feet of skiers. That’s on the books right now. It would be good to emphasize that in the signage.”
Ridgway resident Robyn Cascade suggested a compromise: perhaps snowmobilers and skiers (and hikers) might use the trail on alternating days.
“Maybe there’s a way of limiting the days snowmobilers can use the trail,” Cascade said, “such as 3-4 days per week, and one weekend day. They do that with dogs and equestrians. I would propose that motorized use be limited.”
“I’m a pretty darn good skier, but if I were skiing down this trail and a snowmobiler was coming up, I’d be extremely worried about my ability to stop, especially given trees in close proximities,” caller Al Lowande said. “Frankly, the snow bikes are even worse; a lot of those guys are on testosterone overload and speed is what it’s all about. Posting a sign about speed doesn’t mean squat to those people.”
For that matter, “Releasing these (proposed settlement) documents with only two business days before this meeting seems — I could be wrong — but it seems like an attempt for the public not even to notice this is going on, much less comment about it. What was the reasoning?”
“This has been going on for two years, and the judge is tired of it,” Viner replied, “and we have until Sept. 9. So we either settle the case or move forward with litigation.”
“It took a long time to get all of these materials drafted, and we may be releasing them prematurely,” Batchelder ventured.
“In light of all the issues raised here, I’d say that regardless of the judge’s deadline, I’d hope you seriously consider these issues, and perhaps renegotiate a few things with the landowners,” Lowande replied.
The meeting was continued to Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 1:30 p.m.
“Action may be taken on item(s),” the commissioner’s agenda notes, “or may be continued to another meeting date.”