ESTES PARK — The Larimer County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday sided with the Town of Estes Park in the first appeal regarding a proposed mountain coaster.
The project has sparked controversy between residents who said the coaster will disturb wildlife and bring increased traffic and noise, and the town staff who approved the plan amid questions of conflicts of interest. The coaster would be just outside the town limits on land that's owned by Estes Park Town Trustee and current Mayor Pro Tem Cody Walker.
At the nearly four-hour meeting Tuesday, 53 members of the public spoke, as well as representatives speaking for the appellants, Walker and other parties, according to Randy Hunt, the community development director for the Town of Estes Park.
The commissioners upheld the town staff's determination on the use-classification appeal in a 2-1 vote.
Opponents had argued that the land where the coaster would be built is zoned as residential and said the coaster should not have been approved. The project could have been classified under "residential facilities" or "Commercial Recreation-Outdoor."
"What we often find is that we have to make judgment calls as to what category things go in," Hunt told 9NEWS last month. "In this case, we’ve classified the mountain coaster as the less intensive use [the park and recreation facilities designation]."
A fact sheet posted on the town’s website acknowledged that both category definitions are “quite vague.” They explained that the “single attraction” is not an amusement park and added that staff advised the applicant that adding another recreation facility may trigger a reclassification to the “Commercial Recreation-Outdoor” category.
Following Tuesday night's decision, the appeals process moves to the next step. There will be a Board of Adjustment (BOA) public hearing to decide whether town staff had the authority to review and decide on the development plan, or whether the planning commission had that authority. That is scheduled to take place Oct. 16 at 4:30 p.m.
Regardless of the outcome of the Board of Adjustment hearing, there will be an Estes Valley Planning Commission public hearing. It's scheduled for Oct. 30 at 4 p.m.
If the BOA decides that it was proper for Community Development Staff to review
the plan, the appeal of staff’s approval of the development plan will proceed to the Estes Valley Planning Commission. They'll review whether staff’s approval of the plan was proper in accordance with the applicable provisions of the Estes Valley Development Commission. The hearing would be open to the public, but is not yet scheduled.
If the BOA decides that it was not proper for the Community Development Staff
to review the plan, the development plan application will be referred to the EVPC for a new review in accordance with the applicable provisions of the EVCD.
Community development department staff members for the town of Estes Park originally approved the plan for the coaster Aug. 6. They approved it through an intergovernmental agreement between the town and Larimer County.
Letters of intent submitted by Walker for the project in April describe it as a “gravity-driven ride” that’s about 1,960 feet in length. It would be built on property near Dry Creek Gulch Road and Highway 34, which is already home to Sombrero Stables. There would be limited onsite parking, with the majority of users being transported by shuttle from the horse riding facility.
According to the plan from developers, the ride would be open full-time between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. from May through October. It would operate on weekends during the winter with reduced hours.
The plan's approval has sparked outrage from residents, who have formed a group called Estes Park Citizens Against The Slide. The group has raised concerns about increased traffic, noise, light pollution and a potential disturbance to wildlife.
They've also complained about a lack of transparency and potential for conflicts of interest since staff members who approved the plan ultimately report to Walker.
"You just can't imagine a situation where there's planning staff, the developer who’s working with them to get an approval on this project, is three levels up the food chain above them,” said Biff Baird, a concerned resident who lives near the coaster's potential future location. "How can they possibly render a fair and reasonable decision at the staff level when they’re actually working for their boss?"
Hunt strongly denied that any conversations between staff and Walker crossed lines or were inappropriate.
"We’ve been asked, I'm glad to answer directly, has there been any direct discussion with Mr. Walker through his role as a town trustee or mayor pro tem? And the answer is, 'No, absolutely not,” Hunt said. "I would find that ethically reprehensible if anyone tried to do that. I'm glad to be able to report Mr. Walker has never tried to do that."
Just before leaving for a trip in late August, Walker sent the following statement to 9NEWS via email:
For almost 60 years, my family has provided recreational experiences for both the residents - and visitors - in the Estes Park community. This project represents my family’s desire to continue offering that experience for years to come. The alpine coaster provides a mountain experience, very similar to a horseback ride, with minimal impact to the property and almost zero waste. It will be an enhancement to the existing trail ride operation and seems a natural fit for how my family can continue to serve this community with mountain experiences.