Berlaimont decision now rests with regional US Forest Service review team
Objection period for draft final decision ended last week
The objection period for the Berlaimont Estates Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision has concluded with the official objections to the plan registered by local, state and national citizens and organizations.
“The objection period has ended so the regional review team now has the objections and will be reviewing them,” said Eagle Holy Cross District Ranger Leanne Veldhuis. “The next step will be a review of the objections by that regional team in about mid-December. It’s in the hands of the regional team at the point it takes it out of the forest because the forest supervisor signs the decision.”
The official Berlaimont webpage includes a listing of the objection letters, along with a catalog of all the public comment received as part of the project scoping process. In total, 335 official comments comprise the list.
The Berlaimont Estates proposal calls for dividing a 680-acre property — an in-holding surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property — into 19 parcels of 35 acres or more. Parcels of that size exempt the property from county zoning review but the developers must access the site through U.S. Forest Service land, which set off the review process.
Critical wildlife habitat
The project’s potential to adversely affect critical wildlife habitat is the most often cited objection to the Berlaimont proposal.
“Like nearly everyone who has commented on this project since Berlaimont Estates was brought to the attention of the public over a decade ago, Wilderness Workshop believes the project is misguided,” said Peter Hart of Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Carbondale that has led Berlaimont opposition.
“Paving critical wildlife habitat for speculative real estate development is a misuse of public lands and an abuse of the public trust,” Hart said. “The Forest Service itself says this habitat is more important now than ever before due to development that has occurred on winter range through the Eagle Valley and pressure from increasing recreation. Now the agency is proposing to pave this sensitive habitat in order to approve more development and recreation. The agency admits the project will contribute to the continued decline of deer and elk. It is just crazy.”
The Wilderness Workshop maintains that the Berlaimont process was flawed from its onset because the U.S. Forest Service declared that it was a “reasonable use” of the in-holding.
“To arrive at that conclusion the agency relied on criteria that was handpicked by the proponent,” Hart said. “The agency ignored the most relevant criteria, including the impacts this proposal would have on sensitive wildlife habitat. That reasonable use determination contaminated the whole process. The agency should go back to the drawing board on this one, and it should do a better job considering whether putting mansions in sensitive wildlife habitat is a reasonable use in light of relevant criteria.”
Hart also noted there is “extraordinary public opposition” to the plan. The majority of public comment on the U.S. Forest Service website objects to the plan.
“It is our opinion that the approval of a paved access road to the Berlaimont Estates will have a negative impact on vulnerable wildlife populations, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty in the area,” reads the objection letter from the Eagle Valley Land Trust. “The increase in noise and human and vehicular traffic will detrimentally affect already diminished wildlife populations. Wildlife habitats are already fragmented throughout Eagle County — this road would add additional barriers to already imperiled populations that not only use this area for migration purposes, but also for severe winter refuge.”
“We do not need to mince words — the project is unreasonable. It involves a huge public cost for no public benefit,” reads a letter from District 5 Colorado State Sen. Kerry Donovan and District 25 Colorado House Rep. Dylan Roberts. “It will pave sensitive public lands. It will eliminate seasonal closures intended to protect wintering wildlife at a time when wildlife populations are declining at an alarming rate. There is extraordinary opposition to this project. It ignores the fact that this developer already has access to the parcel, which looks like access to other inholdings in Eagle County — it is seasonal and rough. Approving this proposal will also open the door for other developers to claim a right to similar access throughout the state and beyond.”
Objection comments from Eagle County reiterated the overall concerns with the proposal and encouraged the re-examination of the “no action” alternative. While road variances for Berlaimont were granted in 2013, the county has repeatedly stated that decision does not reflect support of the project.
“The road and access variances approved by Eagle County in 2013 should not be interpreted as approval for the Berlaimont residential development. The variance simply dictated the standards that a road would need to meet if Berlaimont was to develop it in accordance with the engineering plans submitted to the county,” the county says.
About that road
When it released its Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision in September, the U.S. Forest Service authorized a year-round access route that includes paving 2.6 miles of two existing Forest Service Roads (FSR 774 and FSR 780) saying the route had the least amount of impact to national forest land while providing the legal access required under federal law.
“We received comments from hundreds of people concerned about the proponent’s plans to develop this private in-holding and the potential impacts to wildlife and other resources,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams “We have no authority to regulate development on private lands and ultimately selected the alternative with the least impacts to forest lands over the original proposal to build a new road across National Forest System lands.”
But that decision drew objection from the Berlaimont team, which argues the new road route does not provide access “adequate to secure to the owner the reasonable use” as required by federal law. Specifically, attorneys for property owner Valcav Vochoska argue that the new route does not connect to the developable and useable part of the property, would require significant blasting and ridgeline work, force seven switchbacks and substantial retaining wall construction and create driving and public safety hazards. Additionally, the developers argue the proposed road alignment would visually scar the ridgeline in “an unsightly manner visible forever from the valley floor and surrounding lands” and create “permanent barriers to the movement of wildlife, including elk, across the landscape.”
The developer has requested the U.S. Forest Service set aside the proposed alignment in favor of the “Alternative 3” alignment.
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Are we seeing more bears because there are more bears on the valley floor, or because we’re all spending more time at home? It could be a bit of both.