Crystal River caucus sees power shift
January 18, 2007
Aspen, CO ColoradoPITKIN COUNTY Political life in the Crystal River Valley is heating up.What many call a “coup” in October shifted power in the neighborhood caucus and has set off raucous debates over a proposed bike path, open space access and house sizes.”It’s almost a complete change of membership,” said Jeff Bier, who won re-election to the caucus in October. “People are questioning some of the open-space purchases and use; also the trail issue.”The Crystal River caucus area covers the terrain from the edge of Carbondale along the river and Highway 133 up to the Gunnison County line near Marble. Neighborhood caucuses are advisory boards to the Pitkin County commissioners, giving local residents an opportunity to log their opinions on a variety of issues.County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, a Crystal River Valley resident, said that the new caucus chairman, Tom McBrayer, stacked the deck at the October meeting by bringing a large contingent of people who don’t normally attend. McBrayer provided specific voting direction, she said, and the caucus is now under the control of residents of one subdivision – the Crystal River Country Estates – who don’t agree with the master plan the caucus and county devised in recent years.”Sour grapes – that’s all I have to say about that,” is how McBrayer answered claims that he staged a coup. He said he won his two-year term fair and square, and will do his duty to run the caucus. The caucus has staggered elections, and there will be another in October, he added.The controversy centers around a proposed bike path that would run up the valley. Current plans envision an uninterrupted trail from Carbondale to Crested Butte. Specifically, McBrayer and others have expressed objections to the trail crossing the river onto county-owned property near their neighborhood.A recent community survey showed widespread support for the bike trail as far as Thompson Creek. The Crystal Valley master plan Farris referred to calls for a trail along Highway 133 with diversions from the highway “where appropriate.” That “where appropriate” clause is the sticking point, McBrayer said.”I personally feel it belongs on the highway right of way,” he said of the trail. And while he says he supports extension of the bike trail as far as Thompson Creek, he is concerned about wildlife and habitat issues in areas like Red Wind Point.The dispute is more than just about trails, however. It’s about access to publicly owned open space.Red Wind Point, a wide bend in the Crystal River north of Redstone, is home to a large county open space parcel, but there is currently no way for the public to access the land. Highway 133 runs along the western edge of the Crystal River, and there is no public access points to the eastern side near Red Wind Point. The only people with reasonable legal access right now are McBrayer and his neighbors in Crystal River Country Estates. “Essentially we’ve got a piece of open space that’s become a private subdivision park,” said Dale Will, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. The county owns a right of way through Crystal River Country Estates, and open space officials would like to install a bicycle/footbridge across the river to access the open space and eventually route the trail through the Red Wind property. Opponents of the plan, many of whom live in Crystal River Country Estates, say the county property is vital elk and bighorn sheep habitat.But Will noted that the public has for years used the railroad right of way that runs through the open space. He said elk and bighorn do in fact graze the upper reaches of the Red Wind Point property throughout the year. But for most of the year the animals don’t come near the river, where the county wants to provide access.Filoha Meadows, a county open space property just north of Redstone, has similar access challenges, Will said. In a lawsuit between the county and neighbors of the meadow, the county court granted open space access to Filoha Meadows, but Will said it is only for the summer months.At the October meeting, new caucus members convened a wildlife task force to study five areas in the Crystal Valley, including Red Wind Point and Filoha Meadows, as well as some U.S. Forest Service land. The task force will report its findings at a caucus meeting Jan. 25.House sizes are another hot issue in front of the caucus.In the October meeting, the new caucus tabled discussion of setting house size limits in the caucus area. The county limit is 15,000 square feet. At earlier meetings of the caucus, some area residents called for a limitation of 4,550 square feet, a number reflected in a widely cited community survey.To set a house-size cap, the caucus would have to have consensus and bring the issue before the county planning and zoning commission and then the board of county commissioners, according to Chuck Downey, former chairman of the caucus.Downey said that by blocking discussion at the last meeting, the caucus “threw out the welcome mat for 15,000 square foot megahouses on the Crystal.”McBrayer believes the county already imposes enough of a cap at 15,000 square feet. He added that home size is not an issue because there aren’t many places left to build in the narrow valley.The caucus has scheduled three regular meetings for 2007, and McBrayer said it would schedule more meetings as necessary.On Jan. 25, the caucus will hear a report from the wildlife task force on wildlife impact at Red Wind Point, McBrayer said, and the caucus will hear about the controversial trail issue from members of open space and trails, as well as caucus members.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is email@example.com.