Forest Service approves paved road to proposed Berlaimont Estates development
Despite fierce opposition, Forest Service says proposed road project meets legal obligation to provide adequate access to inholding
The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday delivered a setback to opponents of a proposed luxury development near Edwards by approving the paving of Berry Creek Road to the 680-acre Berlaimont Estates’ private inholding.
“The draft decision meets the Forest Service’s legal obligation under the Alaska Native Interest Land Conservation Act to provide adequate access to the inholding and minimizes impacts on National Forest System lands by keeping the access across the Forest entirely on existing roads,” said White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams following the release of the final Environmental Impact Statement and Draft Record of Decision.
The draft decision applies only to National Forest System lands and would not authorize any action on private lands. Under Eagle County regulations, the proposed Berlaimont development would need to obtain county approval for new road construction on their private lands.
Under the draft decision, the Forest Service would authorize a year-round access route that includes paving 2.6 miles of two existing Forest Service Roads (Berry Creek Road and FSR 780). This route has the least amount of impact on national forest land while providing the legal access required under ANILCA, according to the Forest Service analysis.
‘Nobody likes this project’
“This is definitely a disappointment,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Carbondale that has led Berlaimont opposition.
“Our take is the road is unnecessary and unreasonable,” said Hart, reiterating the arguments against Berlaimont. “This development will result in the destruction of some of the best, last winter habitat we have in the area, at a time when the wildlife populations are in severe decline. The development will also put more people and structures in a fire-prone landscape.”
Bill Andree, a retired Colorado Parks and Wildlife manager who oversaw the district where the proposed development would sit, said the road approval will have a “huge impact” on the dwindling herd of elk in the area. Andree said that adding that homes on the private inholding will essentially move the current habitat impacts on the valley floor 3.5 miles up the hillside north of Interstate 70.
When told about the loop trail mitigation plan, Andree chuckled: “They just spent money like five years ago to improve habitat for elk and sage grouse” where the trail will run, he said.
Bill Heicher, another retired wildlife officer whose district was closer to Eagle, but who is intimately familiar with the area, said Thursday’s decision is yet one more step in a protracted process that will likely now wind up with the county.
“Details of that approval are going to dictate what will happen,” Heicher said. “The existing road doesn’t comply with county road standards — it’s too steep and too narrow … If the (developer) didn’t get everything he wanted, that puts the ball back in the county’s court.”
“Nobody likes this project. There have been thousands of comments about this plan and basically, all of them were in opposition,” Hart said. “The reason is because there is basically no public benefit that will come from a real estate speculator paving public land that is critical wildlife habitat.”
For now, Hart said he is reviewing the decision documents and the EIS. The Wilderness Workshop will likely engage in the comment period for the Forest Service decision.
“After that, we will see what happens,” he said.
Andy Hensler of Huperetes Advisors, one of the consultants working on behalf of the Berlaimont owners Petr Lukes and Jana Sobotova, said the team is now reviewing the Forest Service decision issued Sept. 24.
“Obviously there is a lot there,” said Hensler. “We are still in the process, as I am sure everyone else is, of reading through the draft Record of Decision and final Environmental Impact Statement.”
One part of the decision was a disappointment for the development team, Hensler noted. The Forest Service changed its preferred alternative for the access road alignment from Alternative 3 to Alternative 2.
“That is not something that we feel is even a safe alternative as an access to homes,” Hensler said.
“The Forest Service has done a very thorough job so there is a lot for us to review,” Hensler added. “Once we have our arms around everything, we will decide what is next.”
In its decision, the Forest Service said that to mitigate impacts to public recreation from improving the Berlaimont road, a 2.7-mile trail would be constructed west of Berry Creek to create a 4.5-mile loop system for pedestrian and mountain bike use.
The Forest Service analyzed four alternatives in its impact statement, including a no-action alternative. Each action alternative analyzed different uses of existing Forest Service roads and/or new road construction and alignments.
“We received comments from hundreds of people concerned about the proponent’s plans to develop this private in-holding and the potential impacts to wildlife and other resources,” Fitzwilliams said. “We have no authority to regulate development on private lands and ultimately selected the alternative with the least impacts to Forest lands over the original proposal to blade a new road across National Forest System lands.”
The Forest Service is legally required to provide adequate access to private property completely surrounded by National Forest System lands under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.
Release of the draft decision initiates a 45-day objection period. The Final EIS and Draft Record of Decision along with information about filing an objection are available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=50041.
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