Opponents of Estes mountain coaster file appeal

ESTES PARK — Residents opposed to a regional planning commission’s approval of a “mountain coaster” amusement ride that would be located on private land east of the town limits of Estes Park have filed an appeal to try to stop the project.

Controversy has swirled around the coaster plan since it was proposed, with supporters citing economic benefits and private property rights, and opponents raising questions about conflicts of interest among town officials and citing the potential for increased traffic and noise and impacts on wildlife.

The appeal was directed to Larimer County commissioners, the Estes Valley Board of Adjustment and the Estes Valley Planning Commission. Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson and Randy Hunt, director of community development for the town and the surrounding Estes Valley, told BizWest Thursday that it was likely to be heard between Oct. 1 and Nov. 2 — although which of the entities would hear the appeal has yet to be determined.

The appeal challenges the regional planning commission’s approval of the coaster based on issues including location, zoning and interpretation of development codes.

The conflict-of-interest allegations stem from the fact that the coaster would be located on land owned by Estes Park Town Trustee Cody Walker, who also currently serves as mayor pro tem. Walker owns Sombrero Stables, adjacent to the site of the planned coaster. According to letters of intent Walker submitted in April, the 1,960-foot “gravity-driven ride” would be built near U.S. Highway 34 and Dry Creek Gulch Road and would be open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. from May through October, and on limited weekend hours the rest of the year. Because of limited onsite parking, most visitors would be transported to the coaster via shuttles from the stables.

Hunt’s office signed the Aug. 6 approval of the project as part of an intergovernmental agreement between the town and Larimer County.

“Under the intergovernmental agreement, we are designated the staff for that planning area,” Hunt said. “Functionally I work for the town. It gives me office space and a paycheck, but we’re also in a real sense part of Larimer County’s planning staff. In our development code, there are things that go on to higher authority, but another category that goes just to staff for us to sign off on and approve.

“We did about three months of analysis and reached the decision that the mountain coaster met code,” Hunt said.

Four members of the Estes Valley Planning Commission are appointed by the Larimer County commissioners, while three are appointed by the Estes Park Town Board of Trustees. Opponents of the mountain coaster, who formed a group called Estes Park Citizens Against The Slide, or EPCATS, see a potential conflict of interest because the three representatives from the town board report to Walker, who owns the land and wants to build the coaster.

“I know what the neighbors are getting at,” Hunt said, “although the three members of the planning commission appointed by the Town Board are answerable to all seven of the trustees, not just Cody Walker.

“The Town Board meets downstairs in this building, and it’s not uncommon for them to come up here and talk about issues,” Hunt said, “but the chain of reporting for the staff ultimately goes through the county. Although the coaster property is physically closer to where we see our town board hanging out, it’s really a county project.”

EPCATS members also contend they have been batted back and forth between the town and county, with each saying the other is the one responsible for oversight of the project. The group’s website also contends that “the property involved is zoned RE-1 residential (not commercial), the implication being that more or less any residentially zoned property around town could be turned into a commercial amusement park.”

As of Aug. 30, EPCATS had accumulated a list of 450 area residents opposed to the project.

Signing the filing for the appeal were Peter and Linda Langer, M. Marsha Sypher, William Hammel, Dennis and Dena Sohocki, Janet Lynn Gehlhausen and Kathy Ann Kelly, all of Estes Park, and the Estes Park-based Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society. The entrance to the coaster would be aligned with Ptarmigan Trail, the access to the Good Samaritan Village development.

EPCATS spokesman Graham Russell said the main focus of the appeal would be the noise that the ride could generate, causing disturbance for the approximately 140 senior citizens living in the nearby Good Samaritan Village, and the interpretation of zoning codes that Russell said could allow Walker or anyone else holding residential-zoned property in the Estes Valley to develop similar commercial ventures on those sites.

Walker, who was traveling and unavailable for comment today, sent out an email before he left for Alaska, which read, “For almost 60 years, my family has provided recreational experiences for both the residents and visitors in the Estes Park community. This project represents my family’s desire to continue offering that experience for years to come. The alpine coaster provides a mountain experience, very similar to a horseback ride, with minimal impact to the property and almost zero waste. It will be an enhancement to the existing trail ride operation and seems a natural fit for how my family can continue to serve this community with mountain experiences.”

One resident who supports the mountain coaster project is personal trainer Michelle Hurni, who has lived in Estes Park for more than 20 years.

“We get so many families up here and we need things for them to do,” she said. “There’s been demographic shifts. We used to have a larger retirement community than we do now. I’ve ridden mountain coasters in Austria and different places. The mountain coaster is going to entertain people who may not want to go hiking in the park. We get 4 million visitors a year and most of them never leave the pavement. We need entertainment for those families that come up.”

Hurni also said Walker should be able to develop his private property as he chooses.

“Horseback riding is becoming more and more challenging, what with liability insurance, so if  he can’t get insurance for that, how much longer can he continue with that” at Sombrero Stables, she said. “He needs to have something else.”

Johnson and Hunt said when and where hearings on the appeal will take place have yet to be determined.

“The appeal had elements that would go directly to the board of county commissioners,” Johnson said in an email to BizWest today, “and also it appealed decisions that would go first to the Estes Valley Planning Commission and then come to the county commissioners. Our desire is to have one hearing up in Estes Park to handle all of the elements of the appeal, so that would necessitate us waiting until the appeal goes to the … planning commission first and then we would schedule a meeting in Estes Park for a hearing on all elements of the appeal that would then be ready to come to us. That would likely be in late October, but it has not been scheduled yet.”

“Timing-wise, there’ll be a little bit of fancy footwork to get this done within 60 days, as spelled out in the development code, so we’d have to be done by Nov. 2,” Hunt added. “It’s kind of a squeeze play because we have to give 15 days’ notice of any public hearing, then additional lead time because you have to get the legal notice published.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that the Aug. 6 approval of the mountain coaster was made by the Estes Valley Planning Commission. This revision also includes new information from a spokesman for EPCATS.