By Megan Tackett
Sopris Sun Staff
If all goes according to plan, on Friday, Dec. 15, Aspen Valley Land Trust will purchase the long sought-after 25-acre land parcel at the base of Red Hill. The sale is the first step of a larger vision to build a new trailhead and parking for the popular 19-mile trail system.
“I’m super confident this is going to happen,” AVLT Executive Director Suzanne Stephens said of the land acquisition. While the land itself — which has been on the organization’s radar for more than five years — will require $825,000, the entire project carries a $1.35m price tag.
“We’re about two thirds of the way there,” Stephens said of AVLT’s fundraising efforts. The goal is to buy the land on Dec. 15, then continue fundraising the additional $500,000 or so needed until mid-January. “We’re fundraising for the total package because we want the whole thing to happen. The goal is to get this done and make it a win-win for the whole community.”
Part of that win-win is endowing the land, which is about a mile north of downtown Carbondale, to the town. “I think if there is a hometown trail, that is it,” Mayor Dan Richardson said of Red Hill, noting that the Parks and Recreation Department had previously attempted to partner with AVLT to purchase the same lot in 2014, “but it was a little pricey,” he said.
“The engineering bill on that came in about $5 million — higher than we’d hoped,” Stephens said of the initial proposal for a “gateway park” that would have created an underpass beneath Highway 82 to access the trail network.
Now, the pieces seem to be falling into place. The asking price for the land came down, which makes the latest iteration of the project feasible. “It’s exciting to think about,” Richardson said.
“That property, it’s a puzzle piece,” Stephens said. “It’s only 25 acres, but it is a key link. By having control of it, we have options. Ideally we’d love to see [a] new trailhead, new trailhead parking and actually realign [County Road 107] so there would be a little more space between people who are commuting and actually need that lot as a park-and-ride and all the trail users.”
The iconic trail system has attracted an ever-booming population of bikers and hikers, the latter of which include the canine variety. About 85 percent of trail users are Carbondale locals, according to the Red Hill Council. That’s great, but it’s also become a growing point of concern regarding potential hazards for both trail users and residents that access CR 107 to get to and from their homes (about two dozen households).
“People go to Red Hill to recreate, then go hike up the middle of the road; it’s a county road,” Red Hill Council President Davis Farrar said of potential traffic conflicts on CR 107.
Stephens agrees. “From a pure public-safety angle, getting all those trail users off the road and away from the cars is going to be a big plus,” she said about the project plans.
The Red Hill expansion is not the only potential use of the land — and that’s another driver for AVLT’s assertive fundraising. Some private commercial developers have also taken notice of the reduced asking price. “It could be screwed up so easily. It could become the next Cattle Creek Crossing and storage, gas station… whatever thing you want or not want could end up there,” Stephens said, noting the several community partners involved in helping make the new trailhead endeavor a reality. “It’s really a community project, and we’re just here to support what the community wants and make it happen.”
Purchasing and subsequently giving the land to Carbondale is only the beginning of the undertaking. “There’ll be plenty of planning work to do,” Stephens said. “We need to get the engineers up there. Hopefully, we can get to trail building this summer, and depending how the fundraising goes and when we’re actually able to turn the property over, we might be able to be using [a new trailhead] by next fall.”
That timing, Farrar hopes, will coincide with the controversial but official Sutey Ranch expansion planning for the area. “I’m thinking [that] will start after the first of the year and will probably be a yearlong exercise which will hopefully involve input from lots of people,” he said. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Land Management traded almost 1,500 acres of land near the base of Mt. Sopris for 670 acres of more heavily used recreational land — 557 of which are adjacent to the Red Hill Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA) — in what became known as the Sutey Ranch Land Exchange with the billionaire Wexner family.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we were actually going to acquire the piece and get the Sutey Ranch to add to Red Hill and everything it offers the community, so this is really exciting,” Farrar said.