ESTES PARK — Residents opposed to a proposed mountain coaster in unincorporated Larimer County filed an official appeal with the town Tuesday.
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.
Community development department staff members for the town of Estes Park approved the plan for the coaster Aug. 6. 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.
Now that an appeal has been formally filed, it must be heard within 60 days provided that it meets all of the criteria, said Randy Hunt, the community development director for the Town of Estes Park and the unincorporated Estes Valley. That would make the deadline Nov. 4. There will be public hearings and the town is required to provide at least 15 days notice, Hunt said.
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.
Town staff members approved the plan in early August through an intergovernmental agreement between the town and Larimer County.
"When we in our office act in connection with county properties in unincorporated areas, we’re acting as agents of Larimer County," Hunt said. "In effect, you could think of us as part of the Larimer County community development staff."
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 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."
That's not enough for residents, who argue that a third party should have been brought in for an independent review of the project before its approval to avoid even an appearance of a conflict of interest.
"That takes all of the questions out of the public, " said Diana VanDerPlogue, with Estes Park Citizens Against the Slide. "It becomes very clear that if we get a third party review, somebody that looks very deeply into the code and the legalities and all of that, then there's no issue of anything funny going on. And it takes all of the burden off the staff who ultimately report to the town manager who reports to the trustee."
They've also questioned how the project was approved on property that's zoned as residential.
"In this case, we have at least two categories that a project like that could be classified under," Hunt said. "One is called residential facilities, [and that's] under a more general label of park and recreation facilities. Those are usually lower-key or less intense type of uses."
The mountain coaster could also fit under the Commercial Recreation-Outdoor category, according to Hunt. He said examples of that would include things like go-kart tracks.
"What we often find is that we have to make judgment calls as to what category things go in," Hunt said. "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.
Hunt and Trustee Walker both pointed out that the property is already home to Sombrero Stables.
"The alpine coaster provides a mountain experience, very similar to a horseback ride, with minimal impact to the property and almost zero waste," Walker said in an emailed statement just prior to leaving on a trip to Alaska. "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."
"Bottom line, our code is that if it's in a county setting, if its outside [the] town boundary, the trustees, the elected officials on the town-side, don’t have a direct role," said Hunt, the member of the town's development department. "There's some language in our code, in fact, and elsewhere in municipal, that says if it's another entity's jurisdiction, they really shouldn't be interfering in a formal way."
That has left residents feeling like they haven't been represented in the process, VanDerPlogue said.
"Right now we don’t have any elected officials dealing with this, " said VanDerPlogue. "The county commissioners say that they can't do anything and step in until an appeal is filed and the town claims that they have no jurisdiction. So we have no elected officials representing any of us."
Cody Walker is traveling until early September and was unavailable for an interview. Below is his statement in its entirety:
I apologize for the short statement, I am traveling and just about out of range as we board the last plane. I look forward to speaking with you when I return home to Estes Park.
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.