Rail corridor dispute may land in court
A tug-of-war of sorts has developed between U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis and a local conservation organization, and it looks like the matter will be decided by a judge.The tussle involves the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad corridor between Glenwood Springs and Woody Creek, and who should have control over environmental protections for sensitive parts of the land.Also at risk is up to $2 million in state grant money used to buy the old right of way, which now may have to be repaid.McInnis, who represents the Roaring Fork Valley in Washington, D.C., has insisted on the eradication of a “conservation easement” on the corridor.He has said control of the corridor must rest with local government, and not with private parties such as a conservation organization.If the easement is not eliminated, McInnis has threatened to withdraw his support for federal mass transit money for the valley. Local governments have been lobbying for federal help to either build a commuter rail system the length of the valley, or significantly beef up the existing bus system.But the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is the owner of the conservation easement, has declined to sign off on a proposal that would do away with the easement.According to AVLT Director Reid Haughey, the easement can only be “extinguished” by an order from a judge.Haughey said Thursday that the organization is worried that, once the easement is removed, the owners of land bordering on the right of way will begin applying pressure to local elected officials in hopes of getting to use the publicly owned corridor for ranching or other activities.This will particularly be true, he said, of any sections of the corridor that are not needed for mass transit.The right of way is currently owned by the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, which is controlled by municipal and county governments up and down the valley.The AVLT was granted control of the easement when the local governments got together in 1997 to buy the right of way for $8.5 million. The Great Outdoors Colorado organization agreed to contribute $2 million toward the purchase ($1 million of that has been paid to RFRHA, the remainder has been held back.)The conservation easement, along with an easement for a bicycle/pedestrian trail, was a condition of the GOCO contribution, known as a “legacy grant.” Both easements are under AVLT ownership.It also is written into the GOCO grant language that the only way the easement can be eliminated is if RFRHA repays the legacy grant.According to RFRHA chief Tom Newland, all three organizations – RFRHA, GOCO and AVLT – have been looking for a way to satisfy McInnis’ demands without undermining the conservation principles embodied in the GOCO grant and exposing the corridor to potential inroads from neighboring landowners.An agreement was reached earlier this week that called for AVLT to agree to extinguish the easement and establish a covenant held by RFRHA, Haughey said, meaning RFRHA would own a modified conservation easement as well as the trail easement.But, Haughey said, “RFRHA’s political mandate is to build a train. We’ve worked very, very hard to find an acceptable solution that fits in with our conservation mission … [and see that] the trail is on equal footing as the train, as written in the easement.”He noted that the areas requiring protection for environmental reasons have yet to be identified, which is another reason AVLT is reluctant to abandon the easement right now.Plus, Haughey said, if parts of the corridor are not used for mass transit, and a narrow trail is build down the center of the right of way, landowners alongside the corridor will start jockeying to take pieces of it.”It will be under constant political pressure to be broken up into little pieces,” he predicted. Under AVLT’s vision, he said, “It should be a trail with a buffer” – strips of land separating the trail from adjacent private property on either side.As for McInnis’ demands, Haughey said it is the AVLT board’s opinion that, “he’s trying to dictate local control from Washington,” rather than leaving the matter up to local governments to decide.
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After nine months of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Wheeler Opera House will reopen for local acts. A touchless reservation system will be open to 53 people for in-person at the venue. Online live streaming also will be available.