No one was happy with the Berlaimont plan during Thursday’s objection hearing
Online session represents required process as US Forest Service moves toward final decision
Nobody was happy with the Berlaimont plan during a virtual meeting on Thursday, but that was to be expected — not only because of the controversial nature of the proposal but also because the session was a formal objections hearing.
A staunch cadre of Berlaimont opponents lined up in front of their computer screens as the U.S. Forest Service reviewing officer for the project conducted the session.
The Berlaimont Estates proposal calls for dividing a 680-acre property located north of Interstate 70 in the Edwards area — an in-holding 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 set 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 the USFS lands in support of their desired development of their property. Specifically, Berlaimont wants to improve segments of the existing road segments and construct a new road across additional USFS 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.
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 in-holding. His draft recommendation calls for paving Berry Creek Road to the Berlaimont Estates’ boundary.
During Thursday’s online session, USFS hearing officer Tammy Angel conducted an objection hearing for the draft Berlaimont decision. She heard from 15 people unhappy with any paved access plan and from a single Berlaimont representative protesting the proposed access road alignment.
Ever since it was first proposed, the Berlaimont plan has come under fire for its potential impacts to critical wildlife habitat and migration areas. That was a central theme in the objections.
“Animals call this area their home. Not their second home or vacation home or trophy home, but their only home,” said Michael Browning, of the Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance. “The Forest Service has already determined this area is critical winter habit for elk.”
Browning argued the central flaw of the USFS Berlaimont decision is its determination that luxury home development at the in-holding is a reasonable use. That decision spawned the need for paved access and other impacts, he said. A more reasonable decision, Browning argued, would be to allow seasonal cabins at the site, accessed by a dirt road.
County resident Jonathan Christiansen echoed Browning’s reasoning. He noted Eagle County needs more affordable housing, not more luxury homes. Most of all, Christiansen said, the county needs to protect its remaining wildlife habitat.
“There has been a ridiculous decrease in deer and elk population here,” Christiansen said.
“The developer bought it (the Berlaimont property) knowing it was an in-holding and other in-holdings in the county are accessed by dirt roads,” said resident Walt Olson. He argued the proposed access would require snowplowing and chemicals in the winter months, which would exacerbate the road impact on wildlife.
“Reasonable use and enjoyment doesn’t mean higher profit for the in-holding owner,” said resident Susie Kincade. She noted the intent of the ANILCA is to provide miners access to their remote claims, not provide developers with access to trophy homes.
“A no-action alternative is exactly what we need here if we are going to preserve our forest habitat,” Kincade said.
The forest’s health was another often-cited concern regarding Berlaimont.
After experiencing the worst wildfire season in Colorado history, many objectors cited the potential dangers represented by Berlaimont.
“We don’t need to have more developments that require firefighters to put their lives at risk,” said Browning.
“We are in a 20-year drought,” said resident Christie Hochtl. “It is one of the two driest periods in the last 1,200 years.”
If a wildfire sparked near a luxury Berlaimont home, Hochtl noted that local, state and federal firefighters would likely be called to the remote site. One of those professionals could be her own daughter-in-law, who works for Eagle River Fire Protection District.
“I would hate to see her lose her life saving a home that should have never been built in the first place,” Hochtl said.
Ezekiel Williams, counsel for Berlaimont LLC, was the only development proponent at Thursday’s objection meeting. But even the Berlaimont team isn’t pleased with the draft decision.
Williams argued that the access approved in the final decision — cited as Alternative 2 — is equivalent to a no action alternative and that it violates the ANILCA. He said the Alternative 2 access, which brings the paved road to the property border but proposes most of the access be built on private property, would require a steep climb with seven switchbacks. He said the proposal is unsafe and would be more detrimental to wildlife.
“The county is not likely to approve Alternative 2,” he added.
Fitzwilliams noted that Alternative 2 would result in the least amount of impact to USFS land.
“When we went through this with our specialists, it was the best alternative we could find to minimize the impact to deer and elk winter range,” Fitzwilliams said.
Williams said the developer would withdraw its objections to the draft decision if the USFS changed its approval to the Alternative 3 access. But that decision would set off a whole new round of objections from project opponents.
“That is the alternative that paves a road right through the middle of a very important elk winter concentration area, and paves several more miles of public land than the alternative that the USFS is now proposing to adopt,” said Peter Hart, counsel for Wilderness Workshop, one of the prominent objectors to the Berlaimont plan.
In his remarks, Williams also spoke about the immense political pressure that has amassed against Berlaimont. “Their (opponents) objection is to ANILCA,” he argued.
After nearly two hours of testimony, Angel said her team will review comments and finalize the Berlaimont objections. The information from Thursday will be included as part of the official Berlaimont webpage. That page includes a listing of objection letters, along with a catalog of all the public comment received as part of the project scoping process.
As the reviewing official, Angel will make her decision by Jan. 24. She will send letters to objectors describing how the USFS dealt with their objections, and she’ll send a recommendation to Fitzwilliams advising him regarding how he should proceed toward a final decision. As the review officer, Angel could tell Fitzwilliams to proceed with his draft decision, to revise the analysis or another recommendation.
After the formal review process, Fitzwilliams is tasked with considering the recommendation and making a final decision regarding the Berlaimont proposal.
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User