Settlement secures Hunter Creek access
A protracted battle over public access into the Hunter Creek Valley from Red Mountain will finally be resolved with a settlement endorsed by Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday.Commissioners approved on first reading a resolution that authorizes the county to execute the Hunter Creek Settlement Agreement. The resolution is scheduled for a public hearing and, presumably, final action on Oct. 13.The agreement represents two years of negotiations with a federal appeals court mediator, involving a number of private property owners, the county and the Friends of Hunter Creek, a group that has long battled to maintain the scenic valley northeast of town as Aspen’s backyard playground.The agreement represents some concessions on all sides, according to Chris Seldin, assistant county attorney.”It’s pretty much a comprehensive settlement of all the access issues on Red Mountain, at least as far as the county is concerned,” he said.The access issues have been the focus of litigation for 16 years.”The nice thing about this is, it’s really solidifying the public’s right to access and ending the uncertainty over access to Hunter Creek,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty big achievement, actually.”An attempt by Tom and Bonnie McCloskey to close off the north road into the valley, which passes close by their house at the edge of national forest property, led to a lawsuit and a 1993 trial in U.S. District Court.The county, the Friends and the U.S. Forest Service, which is not a party in the settlement, sued to keep the road open. The defendants included the McCloskeys and other landowners at the mouth of the valley and on Red Mountain, including the Red Mountain Ranch Homeowners Association.In a 1998 ruling, the court ruled that both the north and south branches of the old Hunter Creek Toll Road are public roads. The judge concluded that a portion of the southern route had been abandoned, but agreed an easement allowed foot traffic across it.When the court issued a legal description of the public roads in 2002, the defendants in the lawsuit appealed, triggering the mediation in an attempt to settle the dispute.The agreement maintains public access to the north road into the valley, accessed from Red Mountain Ranch Road and crossing several private parcels at the mouth of the valley. The north road provides an easier, level access into the valley, and allows users to gain the needed elevation by driving up Red Mountain. The south Hunter Creek Trail from town involves a climb and is only accessible to hikers and mountain bikers.Also kept public through the agreement is the trail through the ravine near the Bureau of Land Management parking lot on Red Mountain, which is frequently used by mountain bikers. It’s an extension of the south Hunter Creek Trail after users coming out of the valley pop out onto paved Hunter Creek Road on Red Mountain. A nordic trail easement, also part of the agreement, will allow skiers who cross over the McCloskey bridge from the south trail to ski alongside the public road into the national forest.The settlement also restricts vehicular access to the valley on the north road. The general public will have to leave vehicles in the BLM lot, though hunters are allowed into the valley during hunting season.In addition, the county will construct a parking lot of no more than eight spaces at the national forest boundary, east of the McCloskeys’ home. That lot can be used to drop people off, but parking will be limited to the handicapped, senior citizens and users of the 10th Mountain Hut System. Commercial vehicles can’t go beyond the BLM lot, and buses and sight-seeing tours can’t drive into the valley.The agreement allows the McCloskeys to gate areas where the public is no longer allowed and the county is to enforce the settlement; it will be able to ticket violators.The piece of the old north road as it passes right next to the McCloskey home will be closed off and the public will be diverted onto the new north road route that the couple constructed in 2000. It takes the public farther east of their house, along Hunter Creek, to the national forest boundary.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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