Sitting in his living room, Eliott Robertson flips through a series of wildlife photos taken from his back porch. As the Blue River rushes outside the window, Robertson shows slides of moose, elk, eagles and a beaver gnawing on some nearby branches.
“I was lucky enough to see a river otter under that willow two days ago,” Robertson pointed across his backyard. “They were extinct in Colorado and reintroduced in the early ’70s.”
Robertson, a resident of the South Forty Neighborhood north of Silverthorne, has seen the surrounding forests and wetlands change since he purchased his home several years ago. Now, he is one of several residents concerned with planned changes to a wildlife corridor as new developments come into the town.
“It’s an incredible amount of wildlife in this area,” he said. “You can walk straight through as an animal without crossing a fence.”
The most recent proposal, Silver Trout Estates, came before Silverthorne’s planning commission on June 14, with plans to develop 14 duplexes and one triplex on a 12.14-acre parcel west of Angler Mountain Ranch. Bordered by Anger Mountain Pond, the Blue River and two town-owned open space parcels, residents are concerned that the development of the space would lessen the property’s value as a wildlife corridor.
Robertson hiked out to the site of the proposed development, pointing out a beaver pond in a bordering town-owned wetlands with a large gap in the middle of the dam.
“This is a beaver dam that has been whacked,” he said, noting that two years ago, the pond had been eight feet deep. “To me, the beaver pond situation needs to be mitigated before development can take place … It all has an effect downstream.”
Proposed by property owner David Namoff and Aspen-based developer Scott Russell, the preliminary site plan passed Silverthorne’s planning commission by a 6-1 vote. As it goes before town council next week, commissioners recommend approval of the property with the exception of two units, which are set aside from the rest of the development.
Russell and his attorney Steve Letofsky were not available for comment at the time of this story.
A STORIED HISTORY
The property was originally zoned for residential development back in 1984, along with much of the surrounding valley.
“It’s a long history. It goes all the way back to the early ’80s when all of Eagles Nest, which included Angler Mountain Ranch, the Ponds at Blue River, Eagles Nest, Three Peaks, all of that was annexed into the town,” Silverthorne assistant town manager Mark Leidal said.
In the 2000s, the Ponds at Blue River was built out, just across the river. The parcel known as “Lot 5” was originally part of the Ponds, too, until the developer sold it off.
“Back in the ’90s, there was no bridge crossing the river. It made it much more difficult to get there from an infrastructure perspective,” Leidal said.
Since Angler Mountain Ranch was constructed, an extension of Flyline Drive would provide access to the neighborhood.
A final site plan for Silver Trout Estates was submitted to the town in 2012, which the planning commission recommended council deny, by a 7-0 vote. However, town council approved the development in 2015, by a 3-2 vote, requiring the applicant provide a $2.7 million Letter of Credit to cover the town’s risk of infrastructure development.
The approval expired when the applicant was unable to obtain the Letter of Credit within the 60-day limit. Now, it is going before council once again.
THE WATCH FOR WILDLIFE
It was standing room only at the planning commission meeting back in June, where several homeowners voiced their concerns about the proposed development.
“It’s an infill piece. It’s surrounded by development,” Leidal said. “A lot of citizens are concerned with seeing parcel developed.”
Nearly 80 residents of Angler Mountain Ranch signed a petition requesting the application be denied, and several nearby homeowners associations have formed a taskforce to discuss the potential impact of the development. This includes the Eagles Nest HOA and its 12 sub-HOAs, representing more than 750 full- and part-time homeowners. The group states its mission is to “compensate the owner for his investment and maintain the land as open space, which we believe to be the best use.”
A study conducted for the developer by Wildlife Specialties, LLC noted no portion of the parcel “…was identified as habitats critical to elk or mule deer,” but noted the site was used by migrant landbirds, beavers and contained an osprey nest.
“With the amount of development that currently exists and is expected to occur, wildlife use of Lot 5 will be mainly constrained to those species capable of existing in close proximity to humans; birds and smaller mammals,” the study concluded.
Nearby residents disagreed.
“I have watched nesting ospreys bring fish back to their progeny and seen moose families graze on the sapling willows. For the first time this year I watched three river otters cross this parcel of land, slip into Angler Mountain Ranch lake and catch a trout,” Mark Donelan wrote in a letter to the town. “I stopped fishing and watched an animal I had never seen before in person. This area simply needs to remain wild.”
Angler Mountain Ranch resident Steve Garrison argued the assessment was “incomplete and outdated,” noting two protected species, the river otter and bald eagle, were not listed.
“The truth is, this is what makes Silverthorne special,” he said.
In a 2015 site visit, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) staff did not note the presence of river otters, but noted the property fell within the bald eagle’s winter and summer foraging range.
In addition, CPW staff noted the applicant’s 2006 and 2015 wildlife reports did not thoroughly identify all wildlife present on the property, including “an abundance of moose and deer signs.”
“While relatively small in size, this highly diverse parcel along the Blue River provides habitat for multiple species of wildlife,” CPW wrote. “Because this property is surrounded by several other developed residential areas, it currently provides a valuable seclusion area and movement corridor for many wildlife species along the Blue River. Development of this property will contribute to an overall net loss of wildlife habitat in Summit County and will increase potential human conflicts with local wildlife, specifically black bears and moose.”
While the town requires a minimum wetlands buffer of 25 feet, CPW suggested a larger space, a minimum 50-feet buffer between wetlands and development.
“The Lower Blue River Basin has experienced significant loss of wetland areas to residential development over time, and CPW feels strongly that no wetlands are disturbed or lost in this project and that sufficient buffers are maintained to protect the existing wetlands areas,” the letter read.
To mitigate the effects, the applicant proposed creating 12,551 square feet of newly-created wetlands adjacent to the development area.
“I don’t get to say I’m the last one in and you guys can’t come in. I don’t believe in that and I never have,” said Janice Barringer, a board member of the Angler Mountain Ranch HOA. “On the other hand, it’s very clear to me that there’s wildlife there all the time.”
She said she hoped the property owner would still be open to the idea of selling the land as open space. At one point, the county and the town had tried to purchase it for this purpose.
“We had approached the landowner to see if a deal could be struck for open space,” Leidal said. “At this point, there is not a deal, so the development is proceeding forward.”
Located near the Blue River, a portion of the site is covered in a thin layer of water throughout the summer. As almost the entire property is within the 100-year floodplain, the developer plans to raise the site and structures four to five feet.
“They have gone through all of Army Corps of Engineers necessary permitting,” Leidal said. “They will be bringing in fill to raise the property in those areas they want to develop.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also ran a stress test above 1,500 cubic feet per second. Per FEMA standards, development is allowed as long as base flood elevations (BFE) are not more than one foot. The flood study that FEMA approved concluded the maximum change to BFEs downstream was .4 feet.
Despite these approvals, residents are still skeptical.
“I think the town has an obligation to people who purchase those properties in September, come back in May and see water out their back door,” said Daryl Roepke, a resident of the Ponds at Blue River.
“Instead of a deck, it’ll be a dock,” suggested Roger Kendall, an Angler Mountain Ranch resident.
Residents of the Ponds noted that homes constructed on fill, combined with high ground water levels and poor subsoils caused settlement issues, ultimately requiring excavation under the foundations. This resulted in a $11.8 million damage settlement.
“The town is somewhat between a rock and a hard place,” Robertson concluded. “To live in a place where there are eagles, I want to do whatever I can to maintain that.”