Berlaimont opponents appeal directly to Forest Service supervisor
Group of hunters, concerned citizens voice concerns over paved access road to proposed development
EAGLE COUNTY — White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams is well aware that hundreds of local residents are adamantly and vocally opposed to the proposed Berlaimont development north of Edwards.
But last week, he agreed to sit down with a small group of opponents who wanted to make a personal appeal.
Berlaimont Estates is a 680-acre parcel of private property surrounded by U.S. Forest Service lands, located north of Edwards and west of the Berry Creek drainage. Owners Petr Lukes and Jana Sobotova have proposed 19 units and nine accessory units on 35-acre or larger parcels in the area.
This proposed land use is a critical component of the Berlaimont plan. Under Colorado law, residential lots that equal or exceed 35 acres in size are exempt from subdivision regulation. Because the developers have the right to proceed with the plan they have presented, no public hearings about the land use part of the proposal were required.
But the location of the property has launched a public process. Because Berlaimont is an in-holding located within the White River National Forest, the developers must build an access road through U.S. Forest Service land. That road proposal has resulted in the presentation of three route options for a two-lane, paved drive from the valley floor through the Berlaimont property. The road development requires an environmental impact statement from the Forest Service.
“Last week, a group of local citizens met with White River National Forest Supervisor, Scott Fitzwilliams, to discuss our concerns with the proposed Berlaimont Estates project outside of Edwards,” said Berlaimont opponent Tim Wolf in a written statement. “Our group was made up of hunters, public lands enthusiasts, and generally just concerned citizens who wanted to make sure our voices were heard by the agency’s top local decisionmaker.”
Wolf noted the group presented a video and jumbo-sized community letter signed by more than 200 Eagle River Valley residents during a Buck Berlaimont Rally for Wildlife held March 16 at Battle Mountain High School. The group also handed over a petition with more than 100 signatures from local youth between the ages of 14 and 17.
Wolf has designed a T-shirt that details the anti-Berlaimont sentiment and the group presented one of the garments to Fitzwilliams. The shirt was signed by those attending the meeting and included a special message to Fitzwilliams, urging him to “make the right decision.”
“Mr. Fitzwilliams was very receptive to our comments,” Wolf said. “We came to the meeting because we attended the Buck Berlaimont Rally for Wildlife in Edwards in March, and were inspired to take direct action, lest we regret it later and miss our chance.”
As he has consistently noted throughout the U.S. Forest Service project review, Fitzwilliams reiterated that the Berlaimont decision isn’t a simple choice.
“We are very aware of where the community is at … but our job is not to put value judgments on whether a private development is good or bad,” said Fitzwilliams in a telephone interview this week. “There is the law — the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act — that we cannot choose not to abide by.”
That federal law dates back to 1980 and mandates “adequate and feasible” access be provided to private property through federal lands. In his official Berlaimont ruling, Fitzwilliams determined that adequate access — to provide for reasonable use and enjoyment of the in-holding property as required by the 1980 law — needed to be year-round. That decision spawned a two-lane paved road design for the development.
“These ANILCA cases are hard,” said Fitzwilliams. “The law is not particularly clear and words like ‘adequate’ and ‘reasonable use’ are not definitive.”
“But one way or another, we have to provide the property owners with access to their property, year-round,” Fitzwilliams said.
Wolf noted that at this spring’s Berlaimont rally, many of those in attendance wanted to know how they could get involved and what actions they could take to stop the project.
“We represent many locals who do not want the Forest Service or Eagle County to approve a paved, 26-foot-wide road across more than four miles of our public lands and through critical wildlife habitat,” Wolf said.
Jessie Squires, an Eagle Valley High School student who has been one of the outspoken opponents of the Berlaimont plan, also attended the meeting.
“I was excited to have the opportunity to meet with the Forest Service directly about the proposed Berlaimont project, and share with them why local youth think it’s a terrible idea for wildlife, ecosystems, and people in our valley,” Squires said. “I asked the Forest Service to hold true to their mission and continue to manage the area in a way that will protect wildlife instead of diminishing it. I know this sounds idealistic, but that’s what kids are here for — to remind us to stick to our ideals.”
“I’ve lived, worked, played and hunted in this valley for over 20 years,” Wolf continued. “Over the past decade, I’ve seen the deer and elk populations dwindle so drastically and noticeably that I made a conscious decision to stop hunting here altogether. Their decline is tied to many factors, almost all of which are directly related to human infringement. It’s time for us to ask ourselves ‘when is enough, enough?’
“We need to begin making decisions that promote the wildlife and habitat values that existed here and enticed us to move here in the first place.”
“I certainly understand, and our draft Environmental Impact Statement discusses it, that this project will indeed have an impact to wildlife in the area,” Fitzwilliams said.
But Fitzwilliams added that wildlife issues are already a concern in the area and contributing factors include recreational use of the area, increased development along the Eagle River Valley floor and the presence of Interstate 70.
“These are all contributing factors to a complex problem. Those issues are already here and Berlaimont has not been built,” Fitzwilliams said. “Berlaimont will not be the tipping point, based on what we have seen in the past.”
“We hope our meeting with Mr. Fitzwilliams will positively influence him to reject the proposed Berlaimont Estates project, which would be detrimental to local wildlife, with little benefit to regular locals who call this place home,” Wolf said.
Wolf said members of the public can learn more about the Berlaimont opposition and purchase one of his T-shirts by visiting firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knowing that the proposal faces heavy opposition, Fitzwilliams said the USFS is committed to conducting an open and transparent process to consider Berlaimont. He said last week’s meeting illustrates that intent.
In the end, however, Fitzwilliams acknowledged it is difficult to convince people you are listening to them if you don’t do what they ask.
“In the end, it’s the decision that people are most concerned about, not the process,” said Fitzwilliams. “These are challenging decisions that are placed before us. But in the end, I am so grateful that we have public lands that we can debate about.”