A Horse Gulch highway?
County floats controversial road connection

Colin Wilmer and a friend tromp through the snow in the Horse Gulch meadow on Monday afternoon. La Plata County recently announced plans for a bypass highway which would run through Horse Gulch and link Durango, Grandview and the Ewing Mesa development. The plan is already drawing concerns on a variety of fronts./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

A strip of blacktop might be in store for “Durango’s Central Park.” La Plata County recently announced plans for a highway through the Horse Gulch area. Such a connection would link Durango and Grandview, open access to the Ewing Mesa 35-acre development and alter the character of one of Durango’s favorite backyard playgrounds.

The greater Horse Gulch area has always been a patchwork of private and public land, and the land known as Ewing Mesa represents the most significant private holding in the popular recreation area. Stretching high into the Gulch from the south, the nearly 1,900 acres are owned by Oakridge Energy Inc. and have long been discussed as the location for thousands of homes and a new golf course. That changed in 2008 when Oakridge shortcut the planning process and subdivided the property into 54 separate 35-acre parcels.

Ewing Mesa came to the fore again last week. On Dec. 21, La Plata County announced that it was considering adopting a “letter of intent” to accept rights of way from Oakridge. The dedication would enable the county to construct a highway along a yet-to-be-determined alignment linking Grandview, Ewing Mesa and downtown Durango. The improvements are proposed to occur in phases over a 15-year period.

“The proposed roads are consistent with those identified in La Plata County's 2030 TRIP report, the regional guide for future transportation needs,” explained Joanne Spina, assistant county manager. “We’ve been in discussion with Oakridge Energy for some time, and there’s now a willingness on the part of the property owner to dedicate these rights of way.”

Such a bypass highway would provide a direct connection between Grandview and Durango, alleviate congestion on U.S. Hwy 160 and open access to Ewing Mesa. However, it could also disrupt trails, fragment wildlife and alter the Horse Gulch experience. La Plata County recognizes these impacts and hopes to address public concerns in coming months.

“We’re mindful that the proposed road connections will be an issue of considerable public interest,” said Shawn Nau, county manager. “For example, we know that community members will be concerned about the preservation of the existing networks of trails, and the County shares the same concern. It’s important to note that this is the first step in a public process that will engage the community and stakeholder entities.”

One stakeholder entity that is eager for a seat at the table is the City of Durango. The City has long envisioned Ewing Mesa as an ideal location for future growth in the form of high-density, mixed-use development, and the recent subdivision of the parcel into thirty-fives came as disappointing news for Greg Hoch, director of planning and community development.

“If you’re going to develop that parcel, why make it an exclusive, wealthy enclave?” Hoch said. “Given its proximity to town, we think this is a good location for mixed-use development that could meet Durango’s needs well into the future.”

Hoch also got disappointing news early on Dec. 21, when he learned that La Plata County had been negotiating rights of way with Ewing Mesa and was set to adopt the letter of intent later that morning.

“We were absolutely, 100-percent excluded from a year-long negotiation on a piece of property that’s already eligible for annexation into Durango,” he said. “We don’t feel like this was in compliance with the intergovernmental agreement on joint planning that the City and County entered into several years ago. We’re wondering why the county was trying to keep the city out of the loop on this.”

In addition, the City of Durango’s vested interests in Horse Gulch go well beyond the Ewing Mesa development. The City has aggressively pursued the acquisition of Horse Gulch open space in recent years and met with a great deal of success.

“The City of Durango’s Comprehensive Plan really highlights the value of Horse Gulch,” said Kevin Hall, Durango’s parks, open space and trails manager. “We’ve been actively preserving large Horse Gulch acreages, and we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 12 months.”

Early in 2009, the City’s stake in Horse Gulch grew when it acquired a one-third interest in a 240-acre parcel for $416,000. Not long after, the City also entered into a contract to purchase “a perfect piece,” the 222-acre Crader parcel, located high in Horse Gulch near the end of the Mike’s and Secret loops. Great Outdoors Colorado awarded $234,500 toward the $670,000 purchase price. And Durango is continuing to pursue additional purchases in Horse Gulch, having applied for a $250,000 grant to help secure an additional 115 acres at a yet-to-be disclosed location. The prospect of a new road in Horse Gulch could alter perceptions of value and affect future efforts to acquire open space.

“It does raise red flags for folks, and property owners might be saying this might not be the best time to preserve my land as open space,” Hall said. “Regardless, we’ve made great progress in the last year, and it’s our expectation that will continue regardless of what happens with La Plata County’s initiative.”

Trail advocates and trail users will also be keeping a close eye on La Plata County’s plans in coming months. Though the configuration remains uncertain, a highway through Horse Gulch would impact trails and the backcountry experience. However, the owners of Oarkridge Energy have also provided permanent easements for trails like Telegraph and Crite’s Connect. Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000, said that the group plans to be actively involved as negotiations move forward.

“The private property owner has always been generous to trail users, which is why we were able to negotiate those easements over 15 years ago,” she said. “We fully intend to be at the table and work with the stakeholders to mitigate and plan for any trail impacts if a road plan is approved.”

And La Plata County hopes to have as many interests at the table as possible as the discussion moves forward. The next stop on the path to will be on Jan. 26, when the Board of County Commissioners plan to discuss and decide whether to adopt the letter of intent.

“This is the very beginning of a process, and a letter of intent is just that,” Spina said. “Once we have the letter in place, we will begin a thorough public process and engage all of the stakeholders.” •

 

 

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