Commissioner questions foundation’s role in Independence Pass project |

Commissioner questions foundation’s role in Independence Pass project

Should a nonprofit organization spearhead highway improvement projects?

Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley posed that question Tuesday during a presentation by the Independence Pass Foundation, a locally based nonprofit that recently introduced an enhancement project proposal for the winter-gate area along the scenic stretch of Highway 82.

The plan calls for an emergency telephone (there’s no cellphone service in the area), redeveloping the parking area for 23 vehicles and three recreational vehicles, and installing information signs about the pass and other improvements.

“The difficulty I have so far, this is an infrastructural improvement project that a nonprofit is taking the reins of on a state highway,” Owsley said. “I just don’t see how that works.”

He likened it to Trout Unlimited creating parking spaces for anglers. “I have trouble understanding … this relationship with a nonprofit and the highway department, with the major entrance to town or exit to town.”

Mark Fuller, the foundation’s former executive director who updated county commissioners at the work session, said the nonprofit has been involved in numerous improvement projects on the pass since its inception in 1989.

He explained that Independence Pass is an easement controlled by the Colorado Department of Transportation, while the land it meanders through is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Both government agencies are short-changed, which is why the Foundation is taking the lead on the project. “When it comes down to it, if we don’t do it, it won’t get done,” Fuller said.

Likewise, Commissioner Rachel Richards said that government “depends on the volunteer organizations,” and that “I think we’ve become more dependent on citizen volunteers.”

Foundation board member Boots Ferguson said, “The relationship we have with the county is not new. It’s 26 years old. The reason a nonprofit is involved is because that’s how things are happening.”

The foundation still needs to raise the funds to complete the project, estimated at $500,000. Fuller said 90 percent of the capital would be raised “largely through” private donations and grants to the foundation. Richards added that another 5 to 10 percent of the funding could come from local government sources.

Depending on the progress of the fundraising, the project could be done in phases, Fuller said. Work could start as early as this year and take another three to six years to complete, he said. Impacts would be minimal, with the goal of “making things more attractive to and useful to the traveling public.”

Commissioners, who also got a look at the plan during a March 17 work session, are generally in favor of the proposal, which also would include a loading dock for snowmobiles and equipment used by CDOT, rest-area facilities and replacing the concrete barriers with a low stone wall.

“In terms of overall approach to the project, the county supports a non-urban, simple, functional design that meets (without exceeding) parking demand, improves information availability, safety and access for recreation and vehicles using Independence Pass,” county commissioners Chairman Steve Child wrote on behalf of the commissioners to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, which is reviewing the proposal and accepting comments on it.

Aspen resident Ruth Harrison, however, said she objected to the project because she doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“Personally, I don’t see a need for it,” she told commissioners. “I do not consider that an entrance to the pass; I consider Difficult an entrance to the pass. I believe Hunter Creek has been ruined by signs. There are huge signs there. Next they’ll have a bar and restaurant there.”

She added: “I just have a hard time with the whole thing. I don’t think everything has to be touched up by us.”

Ferguson said the parking area is a blight, or, more pointedly, “butt ugly.”

“I think if you have an eyesore, why leave it an eyesore?” he said. “This is not a natural area of disturbance. … It’s a butt-ugly parking lot. There is no reason for us to sustain a parking lot and dump that CDOT has put in its rear-view mirror.”

CDOT historically opens the pass to automobile traffic Memorial Day weekend, weather permitting.

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