EAGLE, Colorado - One side sees the issue as an avenue to provide public access to recreational and scenic properties in Eagle's open space portfolio. Folks on the other see it as a move to thwart the original intent of the town's open lands goals as well as a breach of promises made when they purchased their residential properties.
And both of those arguments will be aired next Tuesday when the Eagle Planning and Zoning Commission considers a new proposed Hernage Gulch Trail. The discussion marks the third round for this controversial proposal.
The proposed trail is 2.65 miles long and would be accessed at the second cattle guard located on Third Gulch. The trail would end at Hernage Creek Road.
"The proposed trail would provide a high quality intermediate trail experience linking to and providing a critical mass of trails close to town with amazing views," said Adam Palmer, member of the Hardscrabble Trail Coalition. The coalition is the entity proposing the trail extension.
Palmer said the trail would provide a current unmet need to help the town of Eagle successfully market itself through recreation-based tourism and generate some favorable economic development.
"Basically, we think it provides a great recreation and scenic addition to the trail network in town," Palmer said. "It will be one of the most buffered trails on the town of Eagle Open Space."
But a group opposed the trail - the Town of Eagle Open Space Protection Coalition - said the development of any bike trails in the Hernage Creek drainage is a direct violation of the Eagle Ranch regulations as well as the Town of Eagle Open Space Travel Management Plan.
"First and foremost over the nine year period for the approval process for the Eagle Ranch PUD (planned unit development) much thought, consideration and specific regulation were put into the Hernage Creek drainage area to protect what was referred to as 'valuable and diverse wildlife habitat,'" said Matt Sauer.
Sauer said the rules stating that "foot only" trails in the Hernage Gulch area were negotiated by the town and Eagle Ranch with input from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
"This area was of such importance to the migratory patterns of the deer and elk populations that the developer was able to do a land swap out for Hernage Creek for the Highlands in an effort to further protect this unique and special area," said Sauer.
Palmer said that in planning the trail, the coalition did seek to protect critical wildlife habitat.
"The proposed Hernage Trail does not impact critical wildlife habitat as identified in maps developed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife," notes the group's trail application.
"However, the area is designated as winter range habitat, along with a majority of the Eagle Ranch area and golf course. Therefore, the proposed use restrictions would be identical for the Hernage Trail as exists for other non-motorized trails in the Town of Eagle to respect such winter range wildlife needs. Seasonal use restrictions are proposed from Dec. 15 through April 15 to minimize impact to deer and elk during winter and early spring. These closures have been effective at eliminating human activity in these areas when wildlife, particularly deer and elk populations, utilize them."
When contacted this week, Bill Andree of the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife agreed that the Hernage Creek drainage is an important habitat area. He said the division is in the midst of drafting its comments on the proposal and that letter will state "The trail proposal is not in the best interest of wildlife."
Andree noted that last year, a group walking the trail to look at the feasibility of a bike access came across some elk calves in the area. "That's pretty empirical evidence that it's an elk calving ground when you find elk calves. Elk calving season is from May 1 to July and having bikes traveling through an elk calving ground wouldn't be in the best interests of the animals," said Andree.
Breach of promise?
Sauer said trail proponents are trying to group the Hernage Creek open space in with the rest of the town's open space properties, but from the beginning it has been a different entity with a unique vision.
Along with voicing his concerns regarding the wildlife issue, Sauer noted that when residents of the area purchased their properties, they paid a premium and were promised their lots bordered a wildlife area that would remain in "pristine" condition.
Sauer noted that he took special pains in designing his house to orient it toward the "untouched and pristine" areas of the Hernage Creek Drainage.
"I had both the Eagle Ranch PUD and the Town of Eagle Open Space Travel Management Plan specific guidelines for this area assuring me that both the unique wildlife habitat and the privacy behind my home would be protected as very specifically and legally documented in both documents," he said.
Palmer noted that while the Hernage Gulch drainage is designated for foot-only trails, the open space in the area is public ground
"We have been surprised by the handful of property owners' concerns regarding this trail, since it would improve nearby property owners' access and enjoyment of public open space, improve property values, and in our opinion improve health and quality of life, nearby property owners being the primary beneficiaries of such an amenity," Palmer said. "Obviously some disagree and see the trail as a negative. We believe concerns over perceived negative impacts of this trail have been a bit hyperbolized for a non-motorized multi-use trail which would be closed almost half of the year."
The group opposing the Hernage Trail has stated its support for an alternative that would link the existing Arroyo/Third Gulch Trail to the Abrams Trail via U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. Andree said the BLM is currently reviewing its travel management guidelines in the area.
"Unfortunately, we would all like to see things happen immediately," said Andree. "But there is a planning process going on through the BLM now that would provide better access than the one they are proposing."
Palmer noted that the BLM process is a time-consuming and costly endeavor, and by contrast the town's process is local and accessible. "Our challenge is we are trying to make everyone happy. Obviously we haven't been successful to date," he said.
Palmer asserted that the trail proposal meets the objectives of Eagle's Area Open Lands Conservation Plan while also providing a "valuable asset to the town's open space that will offer high quality, non-motorized trail experiences to users of all ages and abilities."
Sauer scoffs at the economic benefit argument.
"My home is currently under contract by a couple who want the same assurances that I was given in regard to both the wildlife that make the area so unique and privacy of this home," he said. "Economically speaking, the sale of my home alone can do more for this community than any trail through this area by resetting property values back to where they should be in our great town."
The Eagle Planning and Zoning Commission will take up the discussion of the Hernage Trail issue Tuesday, Aug. 21. The meeting begins at 6 p.m.