Estes Park Mountain Coaster Opponents Dealt Another Setback
Opponents of the proposed Estes Park Mountain Coaster have one strike remaining in their efforts to stop the development on the east edge of town after the Estes Valley Board of Adjustment voted 3 to 1 Tuesday evening to approve the town staff’s handling of the issue.
Strike one came Oct. 2 when the Larimer County commissioners ruled in favor of the land use classification for the project.
The opponents’ final appeal will come Oct. 30, when they take their case to the Estes Valley Planning Commission.
At the center of the controversy is a proposal to build a 1,960-foot-long gravity-powered “mountain coaster” ride on 160 acres northeast of U.S. 34 and Dry Gulch Road, just east of town limits.
Cody Walker, who owns and operates Sombrero Stables on the property, has applied to build the coaster, which he estimated would attract about 240 riders a day during the peak tourist season.
The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was limited to a ruling on whether the town’s planning staff was the appropriate authority to review the proposal, or whether it should have gone to the Planning Commission.
The coaster’s opponents, many of whom live nearby, maintain that a project as significant as the amusement ride should have gone before the Planning Commission, with members of the public being given an opportunity to state their views.
The hearing drew about 40 people to the boardroom of Estes Park Town Hall, a marked difference from the hearing two weeks ago, when the room was packed with almost 200 people, 50 of whom spoke for or against the mountain coaster.
Only nine people spoke Tuesday, four who are opposed, three who like the idea of the coaster and two who said they are neutral but have concerns about the way the process has been handled.
Randy Hunt, community development director for Estes Park, was the person who decided that the town’s development code required him to make the decision on the coaster, rather than send it to the Planning Commission.
Hunt said that before he joined the staff, the planning department sometimes would voluntarily send a development to the Planning Commission for a decision. He said that was improper.
“We don’t have the call to do that today. We do have the call to follow our code,” he said.
At the heart of the issue of whether the staff or the commission got to rule was a table in the development code, he said.
That Table 3-3 shows what factors trigger a Planning Commission review, a staff review or no review at all. The three factors are the number of parking spaces, the gross floor area of construction and major alterations made to existing parking, egress, utilities and lighting.
The project applicant proposes building a storage building for the coaster, a ticketing office, restrooms and a parking area.
The buildings would total just 1,500 square feet, according to Joe Coop, the engineer representing the applicant, Yakutat Land Corp., although the opponents said the sidewalks, coaster apparatus and parking lot would add up to much more than that.
The trigger for a Planning Commission review is over 10,000 square feet.
The other factor that Hunt said didn’t apply was the issue of alteration. He said the development code defines alteration as a change to an existing structure, and because the land is undeveloped, there won’t be any alteration.
Rick Zier, a Fort Collins attorney representing the opponents, challenged Hunt’s definition of alteration, quoting from dictionaries and the International Zoning Code.
“This development plan does alter something. It alters that site radically,” he said. “The staff narrowly defines it ... so it can keep the decision to itself.”
Hunt said the final factor, parking, is what led him to decide not to send the issue to the Planning Commission.
The plan calls for 19 spaces on the coaster site, with another 32 set aside in the riding stables parking lot. The developers plan to provide a shuttle from that parking lot up to the coaster less than a mile away, they said.
Table 3-3 sets the number of parking spaces to trigger a Planning Commission review at 21 or more.
Zier said county engineer Traci Shambo estimated that the site could hold six to 12 more spaces, which would have sent it to the Planning Commission.
“This is simply a charade to avoid Planning Commission review, plain and simple. Don’t allow that,” he said to the board members.
Coop, the applicants’ engineer, said no other mountain coaster in Colorado has any parking at the base of the ride, and his clients just added a few for convenience.
For safety and security reasons, the owners wanted to keep most of the parking off-site, he said. That’s why the main ticketing office will be down at the parking lot near the stables, he said, with a secondary ticket window on the coaster site for people who get off and want to ride again.
“We didn’t want everyone coming to the site (in their cars),” he said.
At the end of the two-hour hearing, the board voted 3-1 to uphold the staff’s decision to handle the review of the project. Board chairman Rex Poggenpohl voted no, and members Jeff Moreau, Wayne Newsom and Pete Smith voted yes.
After the meeting, Hunt, the community development director, said whichever way the vote went Tuesday, the issue would have gone to the Planning Commission on Oct. 30.
He said the commission won’t be able to debate the issue of whether the development code considers the coaster a recreational use of the land or a commercial use — the county commissioners already said recreational — but the commission will review the project’s development plan and decide if it meets all the requirements in the code.
Craig Young: 970-635-3634, firstname.lastname@example.org , www.twitter.com/CraigYoungRH .