Edwards ranch plan depends on road approval | VailDaily.com

Edwards ranch plan depends on road approval

A proposed road to private property north of Edwards must be approved by the U.S. Forest Service before construction can start. If the road is approved, owners of the 680-acre parcel intend to build 19 homes on large lots. Public review of the road proposal starts Sept. 7 in Edwards.

EAGLE COUNTY — There's a 680-acre parcel of private property north of Edwards where the owners want to build 19 homes, but there's a catch — the need for a road.

That road has been a problem on a couple of levels. The developers needed a variance from Eagle County that allows only one access point to the property called Berlaimont Estates — current regulations call for two points of access. But, in late 2013, after negotiations with the county and the Eagle River Fire Protection District, among others, the Eagle County Commissioners approved the necessary variances.

That decision led to a more complicated process: Permission from the U.S. Forest Service.

Starting the process has taken nearly three years. Aaron Mayville, district ranger for the Eagle and Holy Cross Ranger Districts, said that the district, for more than two years, lacked a realty specialist, a person who handles requests for land exchanges, road requests and similar issues. Lacking that person, it's simply taken this long — more than two years — for the Berlaimont proposal to rise to the top of the district's to-do list.

While there’s going to be a thorough environmental review, the Forest Service is required by law to provide access to private property surrounded by public land.

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During that time, local planner Dominic Mauriello, who works for the property owners, stayed busy with the project, adjusting the plan and talking with neighbors and other interested groups.

No more switchbacks?

The original plan called for a steep road with several switchbacks. The new road takes a less-steep route to private property. Mauriello said the new proposed road may open up access to the public land in the area.

That proposal intersects a few existing trails, trails that now are relatively hard to access. The new plan would include turnouts and parking areas, perhaps for downhill mountain-bike riders.

"This is a way for them to get back up," Mauriello said.

Jens Werner of Peeples Ink, a local public relations firm working on the project, said an easy way to get back up to a downhill mountain-bike trail could be important as the valley's cyclists seek recognition from the International Mountain Bike Association.

The new road could also help residents of the Morningstar Townhomes and homeowners in the Moon Ridge Subdivision, since the current road tends to be dusty and prone to flooding, Mauriello said.

If the road is approved, that will clear the way for the land owners to build 19 homes on the site. Since the lots for the homes will be at least 35 acres each, little county review is required.

That means the Forest Service's road review will serve in large part as the public approval for the project.

Still, Mayville said, he wants to be clear that the Forest Service can only review the road across public land under its regulations. The environmental analysis won't deal at all with anything that happens on private property.

The public review may include other options besides the proposed road. Mayville said Forest Service officials will look at both environmental and social impacts.

Best alternatives

"We're looking for (an alternative) that best suits the valley, and the resource — our public land."

While there's going to be a thorough environmental review, the Forest Service is required by law to provide access to private property surrounded by public land.

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act requires federal land managers to provide access for the "reasonable enjoyment and use" of private property. Mayville said that process is more internal, with no public comment. But that law provides several alternatives for land managers.

But, Mayville said, the Forest Service "wants to hear what the community has to think" as part of the environmental review.

"That really kind of crafts what we bring forward," Mayville.

That environmental review will take some time. Mayville said that the average time for a review is 18 to 24 months. That fits in with Mauriello's stated desire to start construction sometime in 2017 or 2018.

That's a long road to construction for an ownership group — a Florida-based family operation with property interests elsewhere in the valley — that first brought its proposal to county officials in 2010.

"They're in this for the long haul," Mauriello said. "But they love it here — they're going to build up there when this is approved."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.

Alphabet soup

In considering whether to approve a road to private property north of Edwards, the U.S. Forest Service has to make determinations under two federal laws:

• NEPA: The National Environmental Policy Act. This law sets out the requirements for environmental evaluation of any project proposed for federal lands. The law includes provisions for public comment leading toward an eventual decision.

That public process starts with a Sept. 7 meeting at the Eagle County Ambulance District’s Edwards office. The meeting is set for 6 to 9 p.m.

• ANILCA: The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. This law is an internal Forest Service process to determine how best to provide access to private property through public lands.