White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams is sticking with his earlier decision on a road climbing from the Eagle River to a parcel of private property above Edwards where developers envision a community of luxury homes.
The developers of Berlaimont Estates wanted a straighter road through Forest Service land that reached the middle of the 680-acre island of private property where they want to build a gated community. Fitzwilliams, after more than 12 years of federal review of the road plan, last fall selected a longer, winding access road that was not preferred by the Florida developers. And the 2.6-mile route wasn’t liked at all by wildlife advocates, who urged Fitzwilliams to reject the road plan outright.
“This is the last thing wildlife populations need at the worst possible time,” Peter Hart, staff attorney with Wilderness Workshop, said in a statement.
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Fitzwilliams on Thursday published a Final Environmental Impact Statement — or FEIS — on the proposed road. The document is identical to the FEIS published in September, when the supervisor of the nation’s busiest national forest detailed how the Alaska National Interest and Lands Conservation Act of 1980 — or ANILCA — requires federal land managers to provide “adequate access” for “reasonable use” of private property surrounded by public land.
So Fitzwilliams picked a route following existing dirt roads because it would disturb the least amount of federal land. Developers Petr Lukes and Jana Sabatova objected, arguing their preferred, less winding road would have fewer impacts and be safer for residents and emergency personnel. The developers argued their case in January before Tammy Angel, the acting regional forester of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region. Angel’s 37-page response to the objections — which included ardent protests from wildlife advocates urging the Forest Service to prevent any road in one of the few remaining areas of the Eagle River Valley where development has not impacted wildlife — asked Fitzwilliams to address dozens of issues in his final decision.
The FEIS issued Thursday does not include Fitzwilliams’ work on those issues, but it clearly shows he is not shifting from the route he selected last fall. A final Record of Decision in 30 days will include Fitzwilliams’ work on the tasks assigned by Angel.
“So it looks like they did nothing to improve a crappy analysis,” said Hart, whose Wilderness Workshop argues access to the Berlaimont inholding should be rejected under laws different than ANILCA. “It’s interesting that the Forest Service thinks they can address those fundamental flaws in their analysis without changing anything in their analysis.”
Wilderness Workshop joins a host of conservation and wildlife groups pointing to declining numbers of deer and elk in the Eagle River Valley as well as a petition signed by more than 4,200 residents opposing the plan in a years-long battle against Berlaimont. The developers need Eagle County approval for development if they choose to build the 2.6-mile road approved by Fitzwilliams.
“The project will also put more people and expensive homes in a fire prone landscape at a time when it’s clear we can’t afford to protect our already built environment,” Hart said. “We’re reviewing the analysis and contemplating next steps.”
The developers in their objection to Fitzwilliams’ road decision last fall suggested they would pursue legal action over access, arguing the supervisor’s decision would not hold up in federal court.
Berlaimont spokeswoman Kristin Kenney Williams in a statement said the developers continue to maintain that Fitzwilliams’ decision violates ANILCA’s requirement to provide property owners with “adequate access” for the “reasonable use” of their property. The road choice by Fitzwilliams, she said, “creates serious traffic and fire safety issues,” does “permanent and irreversible damage” and impedes wildlife with “retaining walls and extensive blasting to create a zigzag road.” (The plan for the road calls for eleven retaining walls ranging from 10 to 40 feet.)
Kenney Williams said opposition groups are pressuring the Forest Service to use federal law that requires access to private lands to prevent development of private lands.
“That is 100% the opposite of the purpose of that federal law,” she said.
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