Jefferson County Pauses Trailhead Plans Amid Homeowner Complaints | Westword

Jefferson County Pauses Controversial Trailhead Plans

Nearby homeowners said the trailhead's parking lot would threaten lives during wildfire season, while commissioners wanted more details on the overall plans.
Blue Mountain Estates residents want Jefferson County to take plans for a proposed trailhead far away from their doorsteps.
Blue Mountain Estates residents want Jefferson County to take plans for a proposed trailhead far away from their doorsteps. Bennito L. Kelty
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Jefferson County is holding off on greenlighting the construction of trails, a trailhead and a parking lot near the mouth of a mountainside community, Blue Mountain Estates, whose residents turned out to oppose the idea. County commissioners were more turned off by the application than by the concerns of nearby homeowners, however.

Since 1981, Jefferson County has spent nearly $36 million buying swaths of land in the mountains west of Arvada and south of Highway 72 to form the Coal Creek Study Area, a 7,200-acre preserve protecting pristine grasslands, elk, jumping mice and butterflies. 

Jefferson County Open Space, the department that manages the county's public lands and recreational spaces, now wants to open up 1,255 acres of the Coal Creek Study Area to hikers. The department is looking for a place to put a trailhead and a parking lot for a new system of trails — and right now, JCOS planners have their sights set on a spot right outside Blue Mountain Estates, a community of 120 million-dollar homes.

During a Jefferson County Planning Commission public hearing that lasted until nearly midnight on Wednesday, June 12,
county commissioners were deciding whether to approve the construction of the trails, trailhead and parking lot in the study area. About a dozen Blue Mountain Estate residents spoke against the trailhead, with most arguing that hiking traffic will make it harder to escape wildfires and threaten wildlife and untouched areas around them.

The hiking area in Coal Creek wouldn't open until 2027; JCOS has until then to pick a location for the trailhead, design the trails and obtain proper permitting, according to planners. Trail construction will begin before the trailhead and parking lot because of seasonal limitations and because the trails take more time, but the county has no firm deadline for trail construction.

Blue Mountain Land & Homeowners Association president Steve Bisque told the commission that his community's opposition to the trailhead was "born of common sense" and a desire "to stop the destruction of something that is special."

Most of the angered residents mentioned that Blue Mountain Drive is their only way out their neighborhood, and if a wildfire were to flare up — which has happened in the past — they would be stuck behind traffic from the parking lot. Several Blue Mountain residents said they live with to-go bags ready in case they need to evacuate their homes again.

"Don't let hikers come up there," Blue Mountain resident Leslie Woodruff said. "People will die, because there's not any infrastructure, there's no way out. ... It will be like leaving a concert at Red Rocks: we won't get out."  

"This is a very high-risk fire area," resident Elizabeth Moore said. "This involves people's lives. I'm talking about people's actual lives. Please do something brave. Do not approve this project as is." 
click to enlarge A man speaks at a meeting.
About a dozen Blue Mountain Estate residents argued on Wednesday June 12 that putting a trailhead outside their neighborhood will endanger their lives.
Bennito L. Kelty
"You guys are saying, 'We're going to put you all in jeopardy of your lives,'" resident Major Sheryl told the commission. "We, the ones who are going to be really, really impacted with all the safety issues, they hadn't talked to us until we really pushed this." 

But passionate arguments by Blue Mountain residents didn't sway the decision of the nine-person Planning Commission as much as their confusion over what they were voting for.

"Why are we all here at 10:23 on a Wednesday night being asked to vote on something that I basically don't know if it can meet the criteria or not, because of the very vague and nebulous information that's contained in this application?" asked Commissioner David Duncan. "I honestly don't know if I have enough information to vote on this tonight."

The application for the trails, trailhead and parking lot was lumped in with seven other items, including a decision whether to gate off one part of Lookout Mountain, which also drew a resistant crowd to the hearing. Duncan and other commissioners said Coal Creek should have been presented on its own.

The proposed spot for the trailhead would be right next to a small firehouse at 9775 Blue Mountain Drive and a set of train tracks belonging to Union Pacific, where a train passes about ten times a day, according to Bisque. Firefighters spoke at the meeting in opposition to the trailhead.

"Most of us have experienced the congestion that occurs at other trailheads around our state," said Randolph Baca, a firefighter with the Coal Creek Canyon Fire Protection District. "There will potentially be some major interference with fire department operations such as narrowing Blue Mountain Drive."

Residents also worried that the influx of hikers will damage habitats and grazing grounds of the elk and jumping mice and move the elk migration patterns across Highway 72, where they could be hit by a car. 

According to Tom Hoby. director of the JCOS parks and open space division, his department is "definitely at the beginning of the process."

"We have five rather lengthy steps in our park planning process," Hoby explained during the meeting. "We hear all the concerns that have been raised, and we care about all those concerns. We share all those concerns about wildfire, about wildlife, about the impacts on our neighbors."

Kristina Duff, a senior planner for JCOS, addressed the fear that swarms of hikers and cars would block the route of a fire evacuation, assuring that the site would have "a lower visitation" and will likely even rely on reservations.

"This would not be a fee-based system. We're free-to-access parks," Duff said. "But it's something to manage the volumes."     

She also answered concerns about the impact to wildlife, saying JCOS has been "actively managing [elk] for many years" and "we also have grassland considerations" worked into the planning process.

"We have bears. We have all sorts of species: butterfly, ground-nesting birds," Duff said. "We're trying to balance all these things in the most appropriate way as well as providing safe access to our visitors, as well as for the neighbors."

JCOS planners like the spot outside Blue Mountain Estates because it's the only flat area they've found that's slightly removed from Highway 72 while still close to the north end of the Coal Creek Study Area, which becomes too mountainous and remote the farther south it extends.

No decision was made on the Clear Creek trails and trailhead application or when it will return to the Planning Commission. The commission did pass the other seven items grouped in with the application, including the Lookout Mountain gate proposal. 
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