By John Colson
Sopris Sun Correspondent
A simmering road-related dispute between Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private academy for grades 9-12, and it’s neighbors to the north, in the unincorporated community of Satank, seems poised to spill over into a broader fight.
At present, the spat has expanded to include the Garfield Board of County Commissioners and the board of directors for the Rockford Ditch Association, which controls one of the oldest ditches diverting water from the Crystal River, supplying irrigation water to CRMS as well as to the residents of Satank.
“We went through this all, last year,” lamented one Satank resident, John Armstrong, who works for the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails department and has been deeply involved in the CRMS/Satank conflict in recent months.
Armstrong also was involved in a similar conflict last year when the school tried but failed to get the county to vacate a county road right-of-way and turn it over to CRMS.
The current dispute, Armstrong told The Sopris Sun, “has a whole different flavor to it, but it’s the same issue, that’s for sure.”
At its core, the present fight revolves around changes made to the historic right-of-way of Garfield County Road 106, which bisects the CRMS campus and, in Armstrong’s words, predates the existence of both the school and the town of Carbondale.
The historic right-of-way through the school once was the main, two-lane route for automobile traffic between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, crossing the old Pink Bridge over the Roaring Fork River and passing through Satank, prior to the construction of the four-lane Highway 82.
Both the bridge and the stretch of road through CRMS have been closed to public traffic for years, becoming a “driveway” through the school’s property that remains on the books as a public right-of-way open to pedestrians and bicyclists.
Before being closed to traffic, CR 106 went directly through the campus in a north-south direction, connecting to Dolores Way (also known as the Satank Road) on the north end of the campus, and the existing CR 106 at the school’s southern entrance, where it links Carbondale with Thompson Creek Road (CR108) and with Hardwick Bridge Road (CR109) leading toward Aspen Glen and Glenwood Springs.
The school was built in 1953 on both sides of CR106, on land donated by the late Harold “Shorty” Pabst to school founders John and Anne Holden. At various times in recent years school officials have unsuccessfully tried to convince the county to vacate the road and turn it over to the school’s ownership, citing concerns about the safety and security of the school in general and the students in particular with a public road passing straight through the heart of the campus.
The latest attempt at vacation of the road was last year, when Satank residents who wanted the road to remain a public right-of-way prevailed after a contentious and lengthy series of hearings before the Garfield County Commissioners and other governmental bodies.
Since last year’s failed vacation request, according to school officials, Garfield County’s road and bridge department contacted CRMS and, also citing safety issues, asked the school to reconfigure its southern entrance, where the county road once entered the campus in a “straight shot” that school officials say they long felt was neither safe nor secure.
The school started work on the southern entrance about six weeks ago, rerouting the road to one side, piling up dirt where the road once entered the school’s property, and extending a fence onto the road right-of-way.
“The alterations will increase safety for vehicular traffic going to and from CRMS,” the school maintained in a statement issued publicly before the work began.
Years earlier, the school also had closed off the road at its northern end, where it once lead straight through Satank to the old Pink Bridge, erecting a long earthen berm across the right-of-way.
Though the road still is a public right-of-way, open to foot and bicycle traffic, the only way of getting onto the right-of-way from Satank is along a narrow trail that crosses the Rockford Ditch at Dolores Way, adjacent to the point where the ditch splits into several “laterals” that deliver water to various Satank properties.
The work done by the school at its south end has alarmed Satank residents who fear the school is trying to restrict and diminish use of the road as a way of convincing the county to give up the right-of-way, an intention the school administrator, Headmaster Jeff Leahy, has denied.
Referring to last year’s confrontation, Armstrong said that when the vacation request was denied, “they (CRMS) went to a different plan of attack” that culminated in the work being done at the southern school entrance.
On April 6, Armstrong asked the Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to designate the closed portion of CR106 through CRMS as a formal, public trail, with signs alerting potential users to its existence.
It was at that meeting that the BOCC, as a whole, got its first look at the work the school had done in the right-of-way, and at least one commissioner reportedly was not happy with what he saw.
According to a news story in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent about the meeting, Commission Chairman John Martin concluded that the school did its work without the proper permits and, in doing so, improperly altered the public’s right-of-way.
That issue is scheduled to be considered again at the BOCC’s meeting on May 4.
A sidebar issue, involving the Rockford Ditch, arose last week when a group of Satank residents got together to replace an aging metal grate that had carried the narrow trail from Dolores Way, over the ditch and into school property.
The school, according to Rockford Ditch Association Board Secretary Marge Palmer, controls a majority of the shares in the ditch, and appoints three of the five members of the association’s board of directors.
The neighborhood group installed a donated culvert to carry the water, and covered it with dirt to form a smoother and wider trail surface than the old grate, which was believed to have been an old school-bus luggage rack. Palmer said the installation largely was driven by a desire to provide better access to the trial for a wheelchair-bound Satank resident.
School officials, angered by the move, accused the neighbors of trespassing and of working on the ditch without permission from the board of directors in charge of the ditch.
Armstrong, however, told The Sopris Sun on Monday, “I don’t think we did anything wrong.” He said that the ditch walker for the Rockford Ditch Association at the time, Satank resident Joe Burleigh, not only was aware of the planning for the grate replacement, he took part in it. Armstrong said that others associated with the board of directors had been aware of the plans for some time in advance.
According to Satank resident Patrick Hunter, who owns 17 shares of water from the ditch and also took part in the work, “Not only does the new culvert make for a much safer and attractive trail, but it also allows for the access of emergency vehicles to the north end of the 106 ROW.”
Burleigh has since been fired from his job as ditch walker, replaced by local rancher Mark Nieslanik, who reportedly leases part of the CRMS lands for his cattle ranching operation.
In an e-mail to Garfield County planner Tamra Allen, obtained by The Sopris Sun, CRMS Finance Director Joe White called the culvert installation work “illegal” and a case of “trespass,” and informed the county that both CRMS and the Rockford Ditch Association “are in the process of discussing their options” about the issue.
Thus, there are allegations of improper or illegal work being done by both sides of the conflict, and the entrenched battle lines seem to be hardening.
“Sadly, there is a great mistrust of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School by neighbors and ROW (CR106) users due to the school’s numerous attempts to close public access to the ROW,” wrote Armstrong in a summary of the issues provided to The Sopris Sun. “Neighbors and trail users are requesting clear signage of the ROW and a modest but safe trail linking Satank and the Rio Grande Trail with Carbondale, Hardwick Bridge Road and Thompson Divide.”
For its part, the school maintains it has followed county guidelines and rules in attempting to assure the safety of the school and its students, and that it always has worked well with its neighbors and will continue to do so.
“From the very beginning,” said Headmaster Jeff Leahy, “we’ve been very deliberate and cautious about following all the protocols. We went through the whole process that the county set up. They approved the plans that we submitted.”
As for Commissioner’s Martin’s remarks, Leahy said, “We were a little confused by what John Martin said.”
Leahy declined to specifically discuss the matter any further with a reporter, recommending that any future information be gleaned from the May 4 meeting of the county commissioners.