RFTA, Aspen-born lodge owner in court battle over land use
As the owner of a fishing lodge in the Roaring Fork Valley, Amy Fulstone gets to see firsthand the comings and goings on the nearby Rio Grande Trail — whether they are anglers casting a dry fly or transients seeking a place to lay their head.
She also is accustomed to using some of the land that flanks the widely used recreational trail stretching from Aspen to Glenwood. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, however, has taken court action that contends Fulstone is illegally using a 200-foot-wide right of way the government agency holds on the 10-foot-wide trail.
RFTA filed a complaint Oct. 13 in the U.S. District Court of Denver that accuses Fulstone of trespassing. The complaint also seeks an injunction to stop her from keeping some of her personal and business property on the land in question.
Additionally, the suit accuses Fulstone of telling volunteer workers that they can only work on the actual trail and not on its fringes, while “condoning and encouraging her tenants to challenge and verbally threaten and abuse RFTA’s employees when they are working within the property but outside the 10-foot width of the Rio Grande Trail.”
Fulstone called those allegations “offensive” and said she has tried to work out her issues with RFTA in a respectful manner.
As of Thursday, Fulstone, who bought the property in June 2012, said she had not been served with the suit. A fourth-generation Aspen native, Fulstone owns The Confluence Lodge in Carbondale, named so because it is located where the Crystal and Roaring Fork rivers meet. The lodge is near the 10-mile marker on the Rio Grande Trail.
“I’m an old rancher and I do not question anyone’s right to have an easement or right of way,” Fulstone said.
But RFTA, she suggested, has overstepped its boundaries on what she considers property that she is permitted to use through an encroachment license with RFTA.
“This is a little, 1-acre piece of property,” she said. “There’s a lot going on there. There are 14 different easements running through the property, and the biggest being RFTA’s.”
In recent months, Fulstone has fought RFTA’s efforts to build stairways on the disputed property leading to the river as an access points for users. She also persuaded RFTA not to use goats for weed-eradication work on the part of the trail that passes by the lodge.
“RFTA is sort of encouraging people to be there on my private property,” she said.
RFTA disagrees the property is hers to use.
“RFTA owns the railroad corridor (the trail passes through) and we even manage and maintain the open spaces in the corridor,” said Angela Henderson, an assistant director at RFTA who oversees the agency’s project management and facilities operations.
RFTA’s Aspen attorney, Paul Taddune, said the federal complaint’s objective is to “just confirm RFTA’s legal right to the trail. Either RFTA owns it or she does. And we’re clear that RFTA owns it. And if someone challenges that, RFTA is obligated to make sure it retains its authority.”
The 200-foot-wide right of way dates back to November 1890, when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Co. claimed the corridor, from Woody Creek to Glenwood, under the General Right of Way Act of 1875, according to the complaint.
The Roaring Fork Railroad Authority — a consortium of valley governmental entities, the Colorado Department of Transportation and Great Outdoors Colorado — acquired the railroad corridor in 1997. The authority transferred the ownership to RFTA in 2001. RFTA has maintained the corridor since that time. When RFTA took the reins, part of the agreement with Great Outdoors Colorado was that RFTA would “make sure it preserves the trail” and the right of way, Taddune said.
But Fulstone said RFTA has taken too much license with managing the section of the corridor by her lodge. After Fulstone bought the lodge, RFTA cut down 11 100-year-old cottonwood trees on the disputed property that were either dead or dying, she said. She had been told RFTA was just going to trim some of the trees’ dead limbs that were hanging over the trail.
“That was my buffer between the yard and the path,” she said. “Even though the trees were dead, it was providing eagles and herons habitat.”
She prevailed in her effort, at least temporarily, to stop RFTA from building the stairways on the easement to serve as an access point on the river. Fulstone said she has no problem with people using the easement to access the river, but the stairways are another matter.
In an email Fulstone sent to RFTA officials in August, Fulstone wrote, “There is no public land at the bottom of those stairs for the proposed stairs to guide people to. Additionally, there is very sensitive riparian habitat in that area. It is a nesting area for geese, ducks and blue heron, among other critters.”
Henderson, in the email exchange, countered, “While I appreciate you and your neighbor’s concerns about RFTA and improving an existing access point for our trail users and acknowledge your concerns about wildlife, this particular existing path does allow access to the river that is currently used by many kayakers and pedestrians. RFTA is simply making the access that already exists safer for our users. … This section of the Rio Grande Trail belongs to all users in the valley, not just the residents that live adjacent to this particular section” of the trail.
But for now, those improvements are on hold until a judge rules on the complaint, Henderson told The Aspen Times.
“Everything is off the table now,” she said.
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.