EDWARDS — “What if Berlaimont paved a road through your living room?” read one of the signs at Saturday’s Buck Berlaimont march in Edwards. Other sign messages were more concise. One read “No Road” while another simply declared “Enough!” And the fiery sign carriers and participants at the Saturday protest committed themselves to a central strategy to battle the proposed development — keep the pressure on the US Forest Service to rethink its determination that the Berlaimont plan represents a “reasonable” use of the property.
Berlaimont Estates is a 680-acre parcel of private property surrounded by US Forest Service lands, located north of Edwards and west of the Berry Creek area. The project is situated in a drainage area that has been identified as critical wildlife habitat. Owners Petr Lukes and Jana Sobotova have proposed 19 units and nine accessory units on 35-acre or larger parcels for theUS Forest Service in-holding property. Because 35-acre single unit residential development is classified as a use by right under Colorado law, the proposed development is exempt from subdivision regulation and no Eagle County land use public hearings are required.
But the location of the property has required a public process through the US Forest Service. Because Berlaimont is an in-holding, the developers must build an access road through US Forest Service land. The road development requires an environmental impact statement from the US Forest Service, as well as a formal determination regarding whether the proposed 19-unit residential area is a “reasonable” use. The USFS and its general counsel have determined the Berlaimont plan is reasonable. Hundreds of opponents adamantly disagree.
The Wilderness Workshop — funded in 1967 as a conversation advocacy nonprofit focused on the White River National Forest — hosted the Saturday march and panel discussion at Battle Mountain High School. A standing-room-only crowd numbering around 200 people attended the event — aptly described as a Buck Berlaimont rally.
A standing-room-only crowd fills a BMHS lecture hall Saturday to hear local experts and residents cite their opposition to the proposed Berlaimont development.
“It is a gorgeous day out there and I sense that everyone in this room would prefer to be out enjoying their public lands rather than being inside defending them,” said Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Will Rousch. Rousch said the developers have proposed a two-lane paved road, at an estimated cost of $15.7 million, through US Forest Service land to access the in-holding. He argued that despite the US Forest Service determination, that plan simply isn’t reasonable and that the road has the potential to drastically impact the country’s already struggling wildlife population. Noting that the local wildlife population can’t speak from themselves against the proposal, several people at Saturday’s session spoke for them.
For 38 years, Bill Andree worked as a district wildlife manager in Eagle County for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. He noted that during his nearly four-decade career, he documented the drastic decline of local deer and elk herds. “It’s time to do something about wildlife and not worry about some guy’s money,” Andree said. “We are at a point where the county’s elk herd can’t be sustained,” Andree explained. “People ask where did these deer and elk move to? They didn’t move anywhere. They are dead, folks.” Development on the south side of Interstate 70 has caused much of the decline, Andree said, while the elk herd on the north side of I-70 has been more stable. But Andre noted the Berlaimont plan would impact a critical wildlife area and throw that fragile stability into decline. During the winter months, Andree noted that elk are in starvation mode. Every calorie they expend — by standing up because a car approaches, for example — uses the energy they need to weather the winter. The drainage where Berlaimont is located has been an enclave for animals with limited disturbance, said Andree. Along with the increased human disturbance that would come with residential development, Andree noted the road itself — with is slope cuts and guardrails — would be a “complete blockage for animals.” “You aren’t just destroying their habitat, you are blocking their migration,” Andree said. Jim Gonzales, a lifelong Eagle County resident, testified he as seen the wildlife population decline first-hand. “God gave us dominion over the animals of this world and it’s about time we started acting responsibly,” he said. “I really hope the Forst Service will deem the wildlife is more necessary than all these trophy homes,” offered Edwards resident Kim West. West argued the plan would decimate the wildlife population while creating a luxury housing enclave that would be impossible to protect from wildfire and would adversely affect water quality in the larger valley.
Saturday’s panel discussion of the Berlaimont plan included Colorado Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, and state Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat from Avon. They both noted the state legislature doesn’t have direct influence over the USFS Berlaimont decision. But they both pledged to work on related issues such as wildland fire impacts, water management strategy and wildlife corridor protections. Donovan noted that Saturday’s crowd included longtime county residents and newcomers who are equally passionate about conservation. “That’s is a perfect mixture to get things done,” Donovan said. She urged the crowd to keep writing letters and attending USFS meetings to protest Berlaimont. “Keep up the pressure, speak in a unified voice and make sure this road does not become a boulevard for the wealthiest of the wealthy who won’t even call this community home,” Donovan said. Andy Wiessner, Eagle County resident and member of the Wilderness Workshop Board of Directors, echoed that call. “The key player here is the US Forest Service. They can tell Berialmont no,” Wiessner said. “The Forest Service, to me, is being disrespectful to go along with this plan.” Wilderness Workshop attorney Peter Hart said the USFS and its counsel has used flawed reasoning to make the reasonable determination for Berlaimont. He noted that the proposed development vastly exceeds what is happening in other forest inholdings such as Fulford or Piney Lake. Hart said those areas are generally served by dirt roads that are often impassable during winter months rather than four-season, paved roads that run through federal lands. But instead of comparing Berlaimont to an in-holding such as Fulford, the USFS used the Singletree area for comparison. “We are concerned about the direction the US Forest Service is taking on this issue,” said Hart. “I think there is an opportunity to get them to do the right thing.” But what if the USFS sticks to its determination, asked someone in the crowd. Hart believes there would be grounds to file a lawsuit against the Berlaimont decision, arguing that the USFS is being arbitrary and capricious in its decision. Additionally, Hart noted that there’s another potential battleground to fight Berlaimont — Eagle County’s 1041 regulations that govern expansion of water service infrastructure. But for now, keeping up the pressure on the USFS is the top strategy for opponents of the road. “It is possible to stop this road, but it takes community action,” said Rousch. “This issue will be decided by community sentiment.”