Polis, Bennet, Hickenlooper, Neguse add their objections to Berlaimont
Aug. 11 letter urges reconsideration of U.S. Forest Service decision
Any day now, the U.S. Forest Service can officially render its Final Environmental Statement regarding the controversial Berlaimont Estates development planned north of Edwards.
But this week, four senior Colorado political leaders urged officials at the Department of the Interior to reconsider that decision.
In early July, the Forest Service published the Notice of Availability for its final Berlaimont decision, which started the clock on a 30-day publication schedule. The 30 days were up on Aug. 9. But on Aug. 11, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse sent a letter to Meryl Harrell, the deputy undersecretary for Natural Resources & Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stating “continued concerns and objections from local and state leaders, related to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposal to allow improved access to the 680-ace Berlaimont Estates.”
The Berlaimont Estates proposal calls for dividing a 680-acre property located north of Interstate 70 in the Edwards area — an inholding surrounded by U.S. Forest Service property — into 19 parcels of 35 acres or more. Parcels of that size are exempt from county zoning review, but the developers must access the site through U.S. Forest Service land, which sets off the federal review process.
As noted in the Federal Register, Berlaimont Estates LLC applied for an easement to construct, improve, utilize and maintain road segments across Forest Service lands in support of the desired development of the property. Specifically, the Berlaimont developers want to improve segments of the existing road segments and construct a new road across additional Forest Service lands in order to more directly access the northern portion of their property. The proposed improvements would include a paved asphalt road with a gravel shoulder, vehicle turnouts, retaining walls, traffic signs, guardrails, erosion control facilities and drainage facilities.
Support Local Journalism
In late 2020, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams issued the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Decision for the project. Citing the requirements of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Fitzwilliams said that a paved access to the property would be appropriate to provide reasonable use of the inholding. His draft recommendation calls for paving Berry Creek Road to the Berlaimont Estates’ boundary.
The final EIS also recommends the remainder of the paved access road to the site be built primarily on private property — a decision that drew criticism from the Berlaimont development team because it would require a steep road with seven switchbacks. Attorneys for the development team have objected to this road alternative.
The Berlaimont plan has generated spirited local opposition, with many residents arguing the proposed access cuts through some of the last, best critical wildlife habitat in Eagle County. In their Aug. 11 letter, the four Colorado political leaders also cited that concern.
‘Necessary to sustain life’
“The Berlaimont Estates proposal would compromise sensitive winter habitat necessary to sustain wildlife populations that are currently in decline,” the Aug. 11 letter states. “It would also require the Forest Service to amend its Forest Plan to abandon wildlife habitat protections. The community has raised this issue multiple times, but we do not believe these concerns have been fully acknowledged or considered.”
The letter also questions the legal precedent argument the Forest Service has cited in its Berlaimont decision.
“The Forest Service has no obligation to grant dramatically improved road access to facilitate more attractive real estate development. Such a decision would have far-reaching implications,” the letter states. “Additionally, we believe the Forest Service has failed to acknowledge key differences between the Berlaimont Estates inholding, which was purchased with seasonal dirt road access, and other similar inholdings in the region.”
The letter also details the “sustained local opposition” to the Berlaimont plan and states many of the local concerns regarding the proposal remain unresolved.
“We’re grateful that our elected officials heard thousands of voices calling foul on this process,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit that has been a vocal Berlaimont opponent. “The Forest Service decision to approve this damaging road to a speculative new subdivision in our national forest is unreasonable for many reasons that the agency overlooked or ignored.
“The agency’s consideration of this proposal went off the rails early on,” Hart added. “Hopefully, this letter will motivate the Forest Service to reverse course and start the process again or deny this unreasonable request outright.”
Kristin Kenney Williams, spokesperson for the Berlaimont development team also, responded to the Aug. 11 letter.
“This is extraordinary political pressure on the Forest Service to disregard federal law and use ANILCA as a tool to prevent reasonable private lands development allowed as a use by right under state law and county land use regulation,” she said. “The Forest Service process has been thorough and complete and spanned more than a decade, during which time the public has had ample opportunity to voice its opinion. It’s now time for the Forest Service to complete its process and issue a decision.”