The community recently was introduced to a development plan involving the north side of Emerald Mountain. My initial response was, "Don't mess with Emerald Mountain," but after learning more about the proposal and the land in question, my views have changed. I now believe the project offers tremendous benefit for our community.
First, we must recognize that much of "our recreational land" on Emerald Mountain is private land. Most of the singletrack trails on Emerald and almost all the large open meadows visible from town are inside a 700-acre conservation easement parcel owned by Lyman Orton.
Conserved land is protected from development, but it is still private land and public access is not guaranteed. The Yampa Valley Land Trust has placed over 41,000 acres in conservation easements in our region, and very few of these parcels allow public access, much less public recreational access. Fortunately, Lyman Orton practices a philosophy of inclusivity and responsible public access to open space. We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of this philosophy, but access is not guaranteed in perpetuity.
A potential future scenario would be an estate sale of this land to an exclusive development. If this occurred, Emerald Mountain as we know it could be lost forever. The "leave it alone" approach is only viable if we are willing to risk losing Emerald forever. Never wager what you cannot afford to lose.
People have asked, "What happened to the old-time philanthropist who would just give us this land." You'll have to ask someone out there who has 1,000-plus acres on Emerald Mountain, understands the intricacies of trusts and taxes and is in the position to just give their land away. Who is "us" - the city, county, or a private group? What would "us" do with the land? Wouldn't it be best to have the city and appropriate public stakeholders at the table establishing a plan that fits with the vision of the community before it becomes a development crapshoot? Orton has been emphatic that the development he is proposing will be a community-guided process and not a for profit-guided process.
Orton has proposed living areas that are mixed and offer a high percentage of affordable workforce housing, something that doesn't exist in our community and is in critical need. All residential development would occur on land that is not conserved and not being used by the public for recreation.
In addition to affordable housing, this project proposes two other valuable benefits for our community. One is the securing of the conserved land as a regional recreational park. This new park would connect the current Howelsen Park trail system and the recently secured 4,000-plus-acre BLM parcel. The combined land would create a year-round outdoor recreation area that would be unparalleled in the state and possibly the country. The park development would create trails and infrastructure that would make Emerald Mountain Park more accessible to the average recreationalist and at the same time preserve the more challenging trails that are treasured by many in our community. Not only would we have a world-class recreation area in our backyard, but it would be within walking, riding and skiing distance from our back doors.
This plan also would create a permanent center for Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. This structure would serve as the permanent base for RMYC as well as a science school, environmental center, outdoor youth activity center and a Nordic center in the winter.
The Emerald Mountain development is an opportunity to simultaneously address three community priorities: outdoor recreation/open space preservation, youth activity center and affordable housing.
If our community can turn this vision into reality, we can look back in 10 years and say, "We did something great. If we do not, we will look back with deep regret.