Home on Elk River sought

Proposed island house has county officials concerned

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— In December, rancher and Boulder businessman Dan Souders put most of his 1,200-acre Routt County ranch in a conservation easement to prevent development.

The move was praised by neighbors and county officials, but Souders' newest endeavor has folks shaking their heads.

Souders wants to build a home on an island in the middle of the Elk River. The island is part of the 140 acres that he left out of the easement.

"It's just not the right place to be building houses," said County Commissioner Doug Monger, who was worried the natural migration of the river would be affected.

"He (Souders) would try to keep the river in its current location, which is unhealthy for the river. The island got there for a reason."

The county commissioners were informed last week that the county planning staff denied Souders a "water body setback permit" for a bridge crossing to the island.

"If we approve this, we might as well throw these (zoning regulations) out the window," said Chad Phillips, assistant county planner.

Phillips explained that Souders' request to build a bridge over the water violates the regulations that prohibit unnecessary development in and around water bodies. Zoning regulations require a 50-foot setback from the river. While Souders' actual homesite meets that criteria, the bridge didn't.

Phillips said the only way Souders can build the home on such an island was to prove he couldn't find another homesite on that 140 acres.

"He couldn't prove to us there wasn't another acceptable site," Phillips said.

Souders was disappointed at the news but has decided to appeal the decision to the Routt County Planning Commission.

"We were trying to build it down by the river and have as little impact as possible on the wetlands and grazing," said Souders, who already has a home and a small cabin on his ranch.

"We asked for a 60-foot bridge across an overflow channel. It's not even the main part of the river."

Souders said the bridge won't stand in the water, but span the 50-foot channel.

River or channel, Souders neighbors are siding with county planners. They say it's a matter of common sense.

"As a neighbor it certainly makes no sense to me if he builds out in the river," said Chuck Vale, who lives upstream.

Vale also has an opinion as the county emergency manager who oversees fire and ambulance service.

"We already have enough homes built in the flood plains. I don't need more," Vale said.

Souders countered his engineer proved the actual homesite is not in a 100-year flood plain.

While the island is 11 acres, the proposed home would take up only 4,500 square feet of surface area.

"People build along the river all the time," Souders said.

"This is nothing new."

That's the problem, said professional river keeper Bill Chase.

"Every year we take a little more of the river's ability to sustain its natural function," Chase said.

The river keeper said the island and the overflow channel was created by the river itself for a good reason.

"It's there to dissipate energy," Chase said as he listed reasons against building on the river.

"What happens with the water when it goes around a hard-set object like a house? What's going to happen to his neighbors downstream? Do we have to armor the whole river and turn it into a storm drain?"

Longtime rancher and neighbor John Fetcher has ranched along the river for decades and has seen the flood waters with his own eyes.

"That island has been flooded a number of times," Fetcher said.

Nevertheless, Souders' architect, Joe Robbins, said they have proved the homesite is above the flood plain and will not create any kind of adverse effects.

"We did a wetlands study. We have a septic system fully designed and approved," Robbins said.

He said his client has "bent over backwards" to satisfy the county regulations.

"He doesn't want to do any damage, he just wants to build a house on 11 acres of his property," Robbins said.

"Mr. Souders has spent thousands and thousands of dollars on consultants and studies."

Phillips said he advised Souders to apply for a water body setback permit before spending any money on roads or consultants.

"I told them there might be a problem," Phillips said.

The problem, Chase said, is trying to educate the public.

"We're hoping the people in the (Yampa) valley are smart enough to see what they have, and protect it," Chase said.

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