Access rights for homeowners along Rio Grande right of way hit roadblock
Landowners who were hoping the public agency that owns the old rail corridor between Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek would grant them access easements had their hopes dashed last week.The easements would have guaranteed, in perpetuity, the landowners’ right to access their property by crossing the Rio Grande right of way.The right of way gets its name from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad that operated a line between Glenwood Springs and Aspen from the 1880s through the late 1960s. The right of way was privately owned until the mid-1990s, when governments up and down the valley purchased the right of way in order to preserve it for trails and transit uses.It is currently owned by the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority.Private-property owners with land adjacent to the right of way have been pressuring RFTA and its predecessor, the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, to grant them access easements.An easement is an ownership interest in property that gives the easement holder limited rights and uses. Utility companies string electrical wires and run water lines through various parcels of property with easements. Large swaths of property are preserved from development when a land trust or conservancy purchases a conservation easement – they don’t own the land, but they own the development rights.Some landowners along the Rio Grande have argued their property values are adversely affected because access is not guaranteed with an easement.”I’m not worried about whether I’ll be able to get to my house,” said Dr. David Swersky, a resident of Snowmass Canyon. Rather, he said he’s worried that a potential buyer in the future will balk at buying the place without an access easement across the right of way.The railroads that owned the right of way for more than a century, in fact, never sold easements across their property. Instead, they sold licenses that allowed affected home and business owners to build a driveway across the railroad right of way.”The rail companies told the homeowners that the license was all they were going to get – take it or leave it. They said it was because they wanted to preserve their options,” said Tom Newland, the former manager of the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority. The public agency was formed to purchase and manage the right of way until it could be transferred to a transportation authority.The issue of preserving options came up last week before the Pitkin County commissioners.Roaring Fork Transportation Authority officials have been working to line up the support necessary to grant the access easements, said Renee Black, RFTA’s attorney.Officials of Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Department of Transportation, both of which have stakes in the right of way, said easements were acceptable as long as their interests were protected. The easement issue stumbled, however, when it came up for local government review.Because RFTA relies on tax revenues from seven governments in the valley, major decisions must be approved by each and every one. The issue can’t pass without unanimous support.But when it came up at a work session in Pitkin County last week, County Commissioner Mick Ireland objected.According to Black and others present at the hearing, Ireland was worried that RFTA would not be able to preserve all of its options to develop a transit corridor if suddenly there were another 75 ownership interests in the form of easements.For example, it could be more difficult for RFTA to require a homeowner to move their driveway or share an access if the driveway users had an ownership stake.Ireland was also concerned that the state Legislature may in the future pass a law that expands the property rights of easement owners.Commissioners Jack Hatfield and Shellie Roy joined Ireland in his skepticism about the easements. And without the support of Pitkin County, the issue died.RFTA attorney Black said she is now exploring licensing possibilities that will give the landowners greater certainty. She intends to present her finding at the next RFTA board meeting on Feb. 13.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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