Snow blows from a ridge on Red Mountain Pass. The winds of change are coming  to the remote area as more development is taking place on the lower flanks. Last week, a Grand Junction developer submitted an application for five single-family residences in the vicinity of the St. Paul Lodge./File photo by David Halterman

Red Mountain resort?

Plan for five single-family residences submitted to San Juan County

by Missy Votel

The problems of Wolf Creek Pass are being mirrored on the other side of the San Juans, as Red Mountain Pass faces a mini building frenzy of its own.

On Oct. 28, Grand Junction resident David Dow formally submitted his plan to San Juan County commissioners to build five residences on private mining claims he owns on Red Mountain Pass. Members of the community spoke out against the development, expressing concerns over water, erosion and parking in the fragile high alpine environment. However, with a lack of many precise planning regulations in rural San Juan County, other than a one house per 5-acre rule, commissioners ultimately had their hands tied. In the end, Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier made the motion to table the issue until the commission’s Nov. 17 meeting in order to seek legal counsel on whether or not the five houses constitutes a subdivision. Subdividing lots in unincorporated San Juan County is prohibited.

To Chris George, longtime owner of the St. Paul Lodge, which is flanked on both sides by Dow’s property and would be surrounded by the new residences, there’s no question it does. “There’s going to need to be roads, driveways and what have you,” said George in an interview Tuesday night. “In my book, and most everybody’s book, it’s a subdivision. I find it totally ridiculous.”

George bought the St. Paul Lodge, built over an old mine, nearly 40 years ago. In that time, he has helped improve San Juan County Road 14, which is not maintained in the winter, and dug his own utility lines, he said. Since then, he has seen the area grow and become more popular with backcountry skiers accessing the nearby McMillan’s Peak and U.S. Basin. Both of those areas are Forest Service land, pockmarked with a few mining claims.

However, the bottom flanks of the mountain are a different story. In addition to the rustic St. Paul Lodge and it’s adjacent miner’s hut, there are two yurts and a house in the vicinity as well as the Mountain Belle and Addie S. huts, both owned by Dow. He also owns the Artist’s Cabin, at Chattanooga.

“(Dow) really wouldn’t reveal what he’s doing,” said George of the Oct. 28 planning meeting. “What happens when he turns them into vacation rentals?”

George thinks a moratorium on vacation rentals, similar to the one recently enacted in the Town of Silverton, may be needed to allow time for planners to address the issue.

“It’s rampant, uncontrolled development,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

Chief among his concerns is that for the land. “The surface disturbance is going to be extreme. This isn’t a barley field in Delta, there’s only about 18 inches of top soil up there,” he said.

In addition to the impacts on the land, George also pointed to concerns about water. The St. Paul lodge gets its water from a fen, which acts as a natural filtration system, but Dow plans to drill for ground water. “We’ve all seen what came out of the Gold King Mine. You can imagine what’s going to come out of a hole in the ground.”

He also expressed concern over the limited parking on Highway 550, which is already maxed out on most weekends. He worries the pass will become an exclusive playground for the rich, who will be the only ones able to afford property up there.

When contacted Wednesday morning, Dow said he had submitted an application to San Juan County for building permits on five pieces of property for single-family residences. He also was required to submit a sketch plan in order to get permits for three driveways, one of which will be shared by three of the residences.

For his part, he noted that structures will not be “houses” per se, but cabins of up to 1,000 square feet. They will all be off the grid and ski-in, ski-out in the winter. In addition, they will come equipped with engineered septic systems, as at the Mountain Belle, and drinking water will either be pumped from the ground or hauled in.

He dismissed concerns expressed over environmental impacts, water quality or ambiguity of San Juan County regulations. “The land use code has very strict rules about what you can and can’t do,” he said.

He did not speak to how the cabins will be used once built or any potential owners or buyers, other than to reiterate that they will be single-family residences. As for the problem of overcrowded parking, he said Red Mountain Pass does not appear to be alone.

“Parking on any given day, in a lot of places in Colorado, gets crowded,” he said. “A lot of day users park on the pass and don’t even own property up there.”

San Juan County Planner Bob Nevins did not return phone calls seeking comment by press time Wednesday. However, San Juan County commissioners could make a decision as soon as their next meeting, at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 10. 

George admits commissioners are “between a rock and hard place” when it comes to telling Dow he can or can’t build. Nevertheless, he felt it was worth speaking up about his opposition. “I’ve got to give it a shot,” he said. “I knew instinctually this was going to happen one day. You know how busy it gets up there on a Sunday – it’s almost a zoo.

“But,” he added, “It’s still a beautiful place.”

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