Local middle schoolers study proposed Edwards River Park Project | VailDaily.com

Local middle schoolers study proposed Edwards River Park Project

Assignment asks students to consider environmental and community factors to decide best use of county land

Developer Donald MacKenzie, center in plaid shirt, shares his vision for the Edwards River Park project with sixth graders from Berry Creek Middle School.
Special to the Daily

EDWARDS — During a 2017 TEDxMileHigh talk in Denver, urban planner Mara Mintzer made a bold assertion.

“Our society regularly makes decisions without consulting one-quarter of the population,” she said.

This expansive and generally ignored population spans ethnic groups, genders, economic statuses and virtually any other typical classification. Arguably, it is the group most affected by the land-use decisions made today.

“What would happen if we asked children to design our cities,” asked Mintzer.

Earlier this month, a pair of sixth-grade teachers at Berry Creek Middle School decided to do just that. They didn’t have to look far to find a real-life scenario. They looked to a property just a couple of miles to the west and began a study of the proposed Edwards River Park project.

Affected by the plan

BCMS teachers Nancy Almonte and Anna McElduff are guiding students through the unique language arts project this spring. McElduff said the Eagle County Schools curriculum planning group has developed framework recommendations for special projects and this effort dovetailed with that work.

The task ahead is a study of the land-use decision process in Eagle County combined with a challenge. The assignment asks students, taking into account a variety of factors including the environment and the community, what is the best use of county land?

From there, students are tasked with making proposals for Eagle County commissioners which includes plans for the future of the space west of the Eagle River Preserve. The students must include evidence about the impact of their proposals on the whole community, as well as on the environment, including the river and local wildlife.

McElduff noted that the students live in the community affected by the plan. “The kids are super engaged and they are definitely divided on how they want the land to be used. They reflect the community.”

Boots on the ground

This week the kids met with Edwards River Park developer Donald MacKenzie to discuss his plans for the 53-acre parcel. He personally presented his plan and accompanied the students on a tour of the proposed development site.

“This was a first for me in all the years that I have been doing this,” MacKenzie said. “When they asked me to do this my reaction was, ‘This is unusual, but it will be fun.'”

Reality didn’t disappoint. As he expected, McKenzie said the students were concerned about wildlife issues and river access

“They were coming from a completely different place and they care about different things. They were really excited about the food court and the amphitheater excited them a lot too,” he said.

McKenzie also fielded questions about building techniques and career specialties. “They wanted to know what is a water engineer and why do you need a water engineer,” he said.

“One of the students asked, ‘Can there be a Target on this site?'” MacKenzie continued. Instead of just telling him “no,” McKenzie and the teachers pointed him back to the Edwards Area Community Plan and the approved uses for the area.

Evolution of a plan

After hearing about the developer’s vision for the property, the students learned about Eagle County’s approval process for evaluating development proposals.

In a presentation he titled “Evolution of a Plan,” Eagle County planner Sean Hanagan outlined the formal review process ahead for Edwards River Park.

“As a county planner, I have to be completely objective and show no bias. “That is pretty hard,” he said.

Hanagan noted that the 991-page plan has been examined by various review agencies such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Then what happened was the developers had to change the pans based on the comments from all these agencies,” Hanagan said.

Additionally, Hanagan said the developer met with county staff to learn about their concerns with the plan and how it fits with the Edwards Area Community Plan. “That took a long time. It took months. It took nine months,” said Hanagan.

“What Mr. MacKenzie has decided to do is reshape his development to fit the master plan better,” Hanagan said. “That meant making the development smaller, which means he won’t make as much money.”

“Why would he do this?” Hanagan continued. “Because the board of county commissioners, at some point, are going to have to look at this. “

Hanagan noted there are several large issues up for debate regarding the Edwards River Park. “One of the big challenges with this project is the tall buildings. Some of them are 80 feet high and that’s pretty new for us. We don’t have a lot of tall buildings in Edwards,” Hanagan said.

Additional traffic is another issue. “When you add 600 houses, you add lots of traffic and every road has what they call of level of service,” Hanagan said.

After careful consideration of the issues, Hanagan said the county staff will issue its recommendation of whether or not to approve the project and suggest changes to the plan. Then the Eagle County Planning Commission will review the plan and issue its recommendation. Finally, the proposal will have its public hearings before the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.

“I don’t get to decide whether this happens or not. The board of county commissioners gets to decide, and there are only three of them,” Hanagan said. “Your guess is as good as mine of how this is going to go.”

Finding their voice

As part of their project, the students will submit their own comments about the Edwards River Park plan. According to McElduff, the students will argue in favor of approval, approval with changes, an alternate land use plan or preservation of the site as open space. They must defend whatever position they take with data from primary sources. For instance, if the open space plan is their preferred option, they have to present a funding proposal to make it possible.

“Some of the kids are saying to forget the hotel but do a Topgolf or arcade because there aren’t enough indoor activities in the valley,” McElduff said. “Other students are worried about their grandparents and think it should have a retirement home, not a hotel.”

Regardless of where they stand on the development topic, both MacKenzie and Hanagan urged the kids to continue following the process and urged them to come testify during the plan’s public hearings. McElduff believes there is a good possibility that will happen.

“I have kids writing their plans before the due said,” she said. “The kids are excited and engaged about this. It is an authentic and meaningful learning for them.”

It’s also been a bit of fresh air for the adults involved.

“Of course, most of my meetings are with adults and most of my meetings deal with the problems,” MacKenzie said.”The kids were great and they had great questions.”

Which brings us back to the idea that kids need to be part of the development process. In her TEDx address, Mintzer noted that kids’ suggestions aren’t always practical but their participation is enlightening.

“So we really need a playground made of candy? Of course not,” she said.

But kids look at the world differently than adults do, she noted.

“Adults think about restraints. Kids, on the other hand, think about possibility,” Mintzer said. “Children design the kind of cities we all want to live in.”

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