Berlaimont team defends controversial development proposal
Consultants maintain Berlaimont plan follows the law and addresses wildlife impacts
EAGLE COUNTY — The loud public outcry against the Berlaimont proposal hasn’t surprised the development team tasked with shepherding the project through the public review process.
In fact, the team and the owners of the Edwards-area parcel remain resolute that the proposal is viable and legal. Hundreds of local residents, as well as numerous elected officials, disagree.
“This property is zoned and subdivided according to county zoning and state and federal law,” said Andy Hensler of Huperetes Advisors, one of the consultants working on behalf of the Berlaimont owners.
The Berlaimont project proposes 19 35-acre parcels on a 680-acre property located north of Interstate 70 at Edwards and west of the Berry Creek drainage. The property is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land and an access road must be built to the site. That road requirement launched a United States Forest Service review of the proposal.
Hensler believes that people who have a problem with Berlaimont likely don’t like the laws governing the proposal — the 35-acre exemption and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. But those laws still apply, regardless of popularity, Hensler said.
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Colorado state law says that 35-acre parcels are a use by right and are exempt from a county land use review process. Because of the exemption, an Eagle County land-use review process is not required for Berlaimont. ANILCA is a 1980 federal law which states owners of properties such as Berlaimont, which are surrounded by federal land, are entitled to “reasonable use” of their land.
The act also requires “adequate and feasible” access to in-holding properties. That is the impetus for the White River National Forest’s review of the Berlaimont plan — to analyze and disclose the environmental effects of providing access to the private property.
“We bought the property and we know what the law is,” Hensler said. “We just showed up and said we are going to follow the law.”
Forest Service review
This week a group of Berlaimont consultants — Hensler, Dominic Mauriello of Mauriello Planning Group, Jens Werner of ReComm Global and Berlaimont project manager Vaclav Vochoska — met with representatives from the Vail Daily to discuss the project and the lengthy U.S. Forest Service review of the plan.
The Berlaimont team believes history is on their side regarding the Forest Service process. Hensler said that back in 1934, the private property was created as a grazing parcel under a Homestead Act provision. The Berlaimont property has been in private ownership for 84 years.
Hensler noted that back in 1974, the property was zoned as a resource parcel by Eagle County. In 2008, current owners Petr Lukes and Jana Sobotova acquired the property. At any point in that 34-year span, Hensler noted the land could have been acquired for preservation — but wasn’t.
“It is a property that passed from federal ownership to private ownership for the purpose of development,” he said.
What’s more, Hensler maintained that the development proposed at Berlaimont is much less impactful than it could have been.
“This is a good project. This could have been another Wildridge. It could have been another Cordillera,” he said. “Our vision was how can we design a project in a way that has smaller impacts?”
Berlaimont’s impact on critical wildlife habitat is an opposition flashpoint for the project.
“There is no question there will be wildlife impacts,” Hensler said. Because of that potential, he noted Berlaimont has reached out to Colorado Parks and Wildlife to define those impacts and develop a mitigation plan.
One of the biggest mitigations, Hensler continued, is the road to the property. Eagle County granted a road variance for the project, allowing a single access to the in-holding, noting if the project develops, the variance would lessen impacts on wildlife and Forest Service uses.
“We are going to cut the road impacts in half,” Hensler said. Additionally, he said the road variance addresses emergency access and turnarounds.
However, in its official comment to the Forest Service as part of the Berlaimont environmental impact statement review, the county also stated, “The road variance approved by Eagle County should not be interpreted as approval for this type of land use.”
“The variance simply dictates the standards that a road would need to meet if the proponents of Berlaimont were to develop the parcels as proposed,” the county Environmental Impact Statement comments state.
As part of its overall planning, Hensler said Berlaimont has identified five-acre building sites within each of the 35-area parcels. The idea is to group Berlaimont homes to lessen wildlife impacts.
“The vast majority of the 680 acres will remain undeveloped,” Hensler said.
Additionally, Hensler said Berlaimont will participate in off-site wildlife mitigation efforts.
“Eventually, deer and elk will figure out where they are safe,” Hensler said. “We believe our project will create a good, safe environment for wildlife. Our vision is to create a place where people can interact with wildlife in a positive way.”
Hensler added that right now, while the public lands around Berlaimont may be classified as critical wildlife range, dispersed recreation on Forest Service lands has a huge, negative impact on animals. He said with the Berlaimont development, designated access and improved public trails are planned which will address that problem.
The Berlaimont team and the project opponents are now in the same position. They are awaiting a decision from the White River National Forest.
Forest Service officials have said they expect the Berlaimont Final Environmental Impact Statement Draft of Decision will be released this summer. After the final EIS draft is presented, there will be an objection period. The final say on the Forest Service’s Berlaimont decision will be a Record of Decision.
That decision will be the conclusion of more than 10 years of work by the Berlaimont team, Hensler said.
“We don’t really have any more insight into the process than the public does,” Hensler said.