New Hunter Creek road sparks a quiet protest
A handful of longtime locals watched in resignation yesterday as backhoes laid waste to yet another slice of the Hunter Creek Valley.
Workers armed with backhoes, dump trucks and chain saws began work this week on a new section of the so-called north road into the valley, being created to bypass a home owned by Tom and Bonnie McCloskey.
The McCloskeys, who have battled for more than 10 years to keep the public from passing within a stone’s throw of their luxury home, haven’t scored that victory yet. But they have received permission to build the bypass across their property just in case.
“I was flabbergasted they could do this. I don’t understand,” said 30-year Aspen resident Dan Forde Wednesday, as he surveyed the work. “We don’t have any say anymore – period.”
The McCloskeys built a trail along a stretch of the Red Mountain Ditch as it crosses their property last year, with hopes of diverting the public off the north road where it passes their home. The 1,375-foot trail provided alternate access from Red Mountain Road to U.S. Forest Service land in the valley. The first 675 feet of the trail paralleled the Red Mountain Ditch; the final 700 feet continued along the bank of Hunter Creek, according to county records.
The work was done without a permit and the project was “red-tagged” by Pitkin County, forcing the McCloskeys to go through the required approval process, albeit after the fact, according to Debbie Quinn, assistant county attorney.
At that time, they sought and received county permission to widen the trail to a 12-foot-wide road that will accommodate vehicles. The new road will provide continued access to the valley in the event the McCloskeys are successful in their ongoing effort to divert users from the existing public road.
The new road will also function as a driveway to a parcel on the opposite, or south side of Hunter Creek, where a new home is now under construction. Without it, owners of that home would have to use the road in front of the McCloskey residence.
The McCloskeys have also received permission from the county and the Red Mountain Ditch Co. to put a stretch of the ditch into a buried culvert to accommodate the widened trail. Shaking their heads The widening work began Tuesday, leaving some locals – and even some of the workmen who are assigned to the task – shaking their heads. The grind of heavy machinery and the destruction of trees along the route brought many a hiker to a halt yesterday afternoon to watch the work and speculate about its purpose.
Twining Flats Road resident Jim Ward, a member of the Friends of Hunter Creek – a group of activists organized in the 1980s to fight for the north road – voiced his dismay.
The last Ward had heard, the county had red-tagged the illegally built trail, a portion of which was constructed on U.S. Forest Service land, according to the county.
“How did it get from being turned down to [getting approval] without community input?” he said. “I just think it’s sad. It just reeks of what’s the problem with Aspen.”
The county held a hearing on the McCloskeys’ application on Feb. 15, records show.
While the McCloskeys opened the new route across their land to the public and encouraged its use with trail signs, the original north road that passes by their house remains open to the public, Quinn said.
“The road that runs in front of their house is a public road and anyone who wants to is open to use it,” she said. A different kind of road rage Use of that road, however, has been at the center of a nasty dispute since the McCloskeys bought a 70-acre parcel from the late Fritz Benedict and began construction of their home on the edge of National Forest land in 1987.
The couple closed off the north road into the valley, infuriating the public. Multiple sources, apparently including Benedict, had assured the McCloskeys that the north road was not a public trail.
To the couple’s credit, they never made any attempt to close the south trail, which also crossed a sliver of their land. But the north road closure sparked a swift and furious reaction from locals who had used the route for years to enter the scenic valley, affectionately known as Aspen’s back yard.
“We felt as long as people had access to the valley [via the south trail], there shouldn’t be any reason why people would want to walk past our house,” said Tom McCloskey in a 1997 interview.
Activists formed the Friends of Hunter Creek to battle for the public’s right to use the road.
The matter eventually landed in federal court, culminating in a 1993 trial in Denver that involved testimony from some 50 witnesses. The defendants in the lawsuit were the McCloskeys and other landowners at the mouth of the valley and on Red Mountain. The valley extends northeast from Aspen, between Red Mountain to the north and Smuggler Mountain to the east.
In 1998, U.S. District Court Judge Zita Weinshienk ruled that both the north and south branches of the Hunter Creek Road are public roads. Testimony and historical documents presented in court indicated the northern route was built in 1887 and 1888 and operated as a toll road. The southern route was constructed in 1891 to aid miners on Smuggler Mountain. Both roads were purchased by the county in 1891.
Weinshienk declared that the disputed northern route had never been abandoned and remains a public road. A portion of the southern route was abandoned, she concluded, but an easement allows foot traffic across it.
Despite that victory, county negotiations with the McCloskeys have continued, according to Quinn, because the judge’s ruling failed to clarify either the exact location of the north road or its width.
“Those are two very, very important pieces of information in the puzzle for everybody involved,” she said.
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