Pitkin County’s highway pot signs serve cleaner purpose; sponsorship helps one of Colorado’s dirtiest sections of road

Cars pass Dalwhinnie Farms roadside signs on Highway 82 in Aspen on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

While Pitkin County officials might not like them, signs along a stretch of Highway 82 west of Aspen advertising a downtown marijuana dispensary offer a worthy trade-off most are now willing to live with.

Dalwhinnie Farms dispensary’s “Adopt-A-Highway” cleanup sponsorship of 5 or so miles of the road happens to include one of the most polluted stretches of highway in the state, and it would not be cleaned nearly as often without the business’ sponsorship money and the corresponding signs, officials told The Aspen Times.

“I’m not OK with the optics of the signs,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said Friday. “They’re too big and they’re (promoting) marijuana. But I’m glad (the dispensary’s sponsorship) is there.”

Further, the company has agreed to pay for double the number of cleanups of the 5 or 6 miles it sponsors between the end of the Aspen city limits at Buttermilk and Aspen Village because the pollution rate of that section is nearly three times the state average and once a month wasn’t enough, said Brian Pettet, the county’s public works director.

And while Pettet said he would like to see fewer of the more than 10 Dalwhinnie signs that line Highway 82 in the sponsored section, the road in that area is plagued by tons of unsecured construction debris going to valley landfills and the signs are the price of a cleaner highway.

“Regardless of what people think about Dalwhinnie signs on Highway 82, that’s what’s funding the cleaning and that is the program the state developed (to reduce litter) statewide,” Pettet said. “The money (to clean the roadside and median) has to come from somewhere. So, if that’s how it gets done, that’s the position we find ourselves in.”

Issues with the signs — which are larger than previous Adopt-A-Highway signs — first surfaced at the beginning of the year when Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock wrote Colorado Department of Transportation officials a letter complaining about a lack of local involvement in their installation.

Pitkin County “has not allowed billboards or highway advertisements for any business, local or not, for decades,” Peacock said in the letter, while also acknowledging CDOT’s “funding challenges.”

Clapper, at the time, said she didn’t like the marijuana advertising — the signs read “Clean Colorado Sponsored by Dalwhinnie Colorado Cannabis” — and thought they were not safely installed.

A state Department of Revenue spokeswoman in February said it was acceptable for a legal marijuana business to sponsor the Adopt-A-Highway program. And Pettet said Friday that the 4-by-4-inch wooden posts holding up the signs all have proper breakaway characteristics in case they are hit by a car.

Dalwhinnie asked to sponsor that section of road to show support for the community before it opened the dispensary on Mill Street next to Mi Chola in September, a spokeswoman said in February.

“We’re here in Aspen and we wanted to support Aspen (through the Adopt-A-Highway program),” Jenny Diggles said at the time.

The company pays between $350 and $500 per sponsored section, a CDOT spokeswoman said in February. Dalwhinnie sponsors 11 1-mile sections on Highway 82, according to statistics from Adopt-A-Highway and Pettet.

A message left Friday at Dalwhinnie seeking an update was not returned.

Pettet, who has worked for Pitkin County for 30 years, said the section of Highway 82 sponsored by Dalwhinnie ­— particularly along the downvalley lanes and within the median — has been a mess “forever.” The problem is the constant construction in and around Aspen and the never-ending stream of construction and landscaping vehicles packed with debris leaving the city limits for the county landfill downvalley or other dump sites, he said.

The trucks can start picking up speed once they clear Aspen’s city limits (55 mph is the speed limit downvalley of the intersection at Brush Creek Road), so whatever is going to blow out of an uncovered truck is going to blow out in that section, Pettet said.

“(The debris) is not the typical littering debris like beer cans,” he said. “It’s insulation, lots of plastic coverings, a lot of drywall and a lot of cardboard.”

Before the program, Pitkin County employees annually would attempt to clean up the section in one day and generally not make it more than a mile and a half because of the volume of trash, Pettet said.

The Adopt-A-Highway Maintenance Corp. contracts with Dalwhinnie to provide the cleanup services to the sponsored sections of road, Pettet said. The company sponsored six cleanups this spring and summer, with the first five occurring once a month between March and July, he said. The company delayed the final August clean up until September, during which time the county and commissioners received numerous complaints from area residents about accumulated litter.

Pettet said he called the company and alerted them to the problem.

“I have to say, they responded remarkably,” he said. “They came out within days and cleaned it up that week. They cleaned it again the next week.”

The company’s cleanup workers collected a total of 465 bags of trash from alongside Highway 82 during those six cleanup days this year, which accounted for 6% of the trash they collected statewide in 284 other sections of highway, according to statistics from Adopt-A-Highway. That averaged about seven bags of trash per cleaned mile.

Colorado’s statewide average in those other sections of highway cleaned by the company this year was 2.5 bags per cleaned mile, meaning Pitkin County’s was nearly three times the state average, according to the statistics.

Pettet said he told Adopt-A-Highway representatives that based on the number of complaints and amount of trash that piled up in August, the highway needed to be cleaned more often.

“I said, ‘Obviously it’s not being cleaned enough,’” he said. “And they agreed.”

More importantly, Dalwhinnie agreed to double the number of cleanups from six to 12 in the spring, summer and fall, Pettet said. Winter snow makes it too difficult to clean the highway and there is far less construction at that time anyway, he said.

A message left Friday for the president of Adopt-A-Highway seeking comment was not returned.

The Dalwhinnie contract does not, for some reason, include the area in front of the Aspen-Pitkin County airport, which is why county employees spent a day recently cleaning up that area, Pettet said.

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman has received numerous complaints about the highway litter, has picked up plenty of it himself during organized cleanups and sees the problem often because he lives in Brush Creek Village and routinely travels that stretch of highway.

“That’s the heaviest area for trash on the side of the road,” he said Friday. “It’s construction trash mostly. We have one of the most active construction industries in the state and one of the most active landscaping industries in the state.”

Poschman, however, was not in favor of the tradeoff of Dalwhinnie signs for highway cleanup. It violates a long-held local tenet forbidding “billboards,” he said, and is yet another sign of greedheads encroaching on Aspen’s unique vision, said Poschman, who grew up here.

“I don’t like the signs,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who appreciates the signs. I think it is a black mark on Dalwhinnie.”

Poschman said he hasn’t seen any cleanup crews this summer and is skeptical whether any have shown up over the past several months.

Skepticism aside, everyone involved agreed there needs to be more enforcement of covered trucks.

“I truly believe a covered load process at the dump will dramatically decrease the litter that collects on the 82,” said Joshua Gensicke, an Adopt-A-Highway vice president, in an email last week to Pettet.

The Pitkin County Landfill can fine people with uncovered loads $150, though that is rare, Pettet said. That may, however, be about to change.

“Now that the issue has come to light,” Pettet said, “they will be more likely to charge the $150 fine for uncovered loads at the landfill.”