DEL CAMINO — At first glance, the idea of running a four-lane road through a state park just seems crazy.
State taxpayers and lottery players are pouring millions of dollars into expanding St. Vrain State Park into a premier outdoor recreation facility along the Front Range. And an interstate already runs directly to the east, offering quick travel north and south.
While there is already a network of county roads crisscrossing the area, fields still surround the 640-acre state park and wildlife sanctuary, home to herons, eagles and other riparian creatures.
But as Weld County leaders plan for a projected 200,000 residents to move into the southwest corner of their county over the next 20 years, they say new commuting options are needed.
And they say that after several years of study, extending Weld County Road 7 a half-mile north directly through the park and over the St. Vrain River is the best alternative. The decision was reached through a mix of political and financial considerations, all of which are now under scrutiny.
Opposition on both sides
Many area residents and landowners say the idea of completing a major piece of a jigsaw road that doesn’t yet run through a neighborhood or proposed development makes sense.
Arrayed against them, however, are environmentalists, state parks officials and the leaders of area cities and towns who are mystified at the sheer audacity to even suggest such a plan.
“We told them when we met with them this would never happen in Boulder County,” said Kirk Cunningham, a retired federal geologist and member of the Sierra Club, which officially opposed the plan. “The problems with this road are so manifest that it doesn’t take experts to figure that out.”
A 1997 development plan written by Weld County concluded there was a need for two four-lane arterials flanking Interstate 25. In 2003, the county formally began studying alternatives for the projects; it concluded that running the road through the park made the most sense.
“In order to provide continuity between the segments to the north and south of this alternative and to minimize the impacts to existing residential developments, Alternative A is the preferred alternative for this segment,” the report concluded. “Special care and coordination with Colorado State Parks and the Division of Wildlife will be important in the design of this segment.”
The study also notes the region has many environmentally sensitive areas and said most are concentrated around the river and the park.
Apparently acknowledging that the plan for a road through the park might be contentious, the consultants included a rendering of what it might look like. Birds wing overhead, and two bicyclists share the roadway with a bus and several cars.
That was in 2003.
Now, furious local leaders who have opposed the plan from the start are taking legal steps to kill the project. Firestone officials plan to annex the roadway itself, then give it to the park so Weld County cannot widen it.
Because the park’s future is in limbo, state officials have frozen millions of dollars in grants from Great Outdoors Colorado earmarked to expand St. Vrain from a former gravel mine into an urban refuge for campers and anglers. Plans call for 145 campsites, three group picnic areas, a visitor center and lots of fishing.
“If that road goes through, we will dramatically revise (the St. Vrain) master plan,” Colorado State Parks director Lyle Laverty said. “Putting a four-lane road with a 50-mph speed limit in — well, the visitor experience is changed.
“That’s what really makes it so strange: Weld County was a partner with us in going to GOCO. That’s what puts it on an interesting skew to me.”
But it’s not as simple as that. With thousands of new residents already on their way and a new high school slated for just north of the park in Mead, Weld County officials say they have to do something.
And they say the road through the park makes the most sense because it is the most direct route across the river, which will save money. That route also permits them to largely use existing roads and avoids a heron rookery and neighborhood to the west, on Weld County Road 51/2.
Those residents of the Meadow Vale subdivision have made their feelings clear.
“If the Road 7 project goes through, it would only affect a few farmers and would serve the purpose of providing a road to align with Interstate 25,” Dennis and Nancy Sindelir wrote. “We ask that you consider how many families would be affected by making Road 51/2 a main arterial and support the Road 7 project.”
Added Terry Glogovsky: “Financially, the extension of WCR 7 has to be less on the taxpayers as the total area of the road is less, not to mention the lawsuits and eminent domain costs that will occur by extending 51/2. Residents will fight this vehemently. Lawyers will be involved.”
On the back burner
Because there are so many strong opinions on both sides, Weld County has been reluctant to move ahead. County officials acknowledge the need for planning and say that’s just what they’ve been trying to do.
“It’s going to take years to resolve the transportation problems in this area,” Commissioner Mike Geile said.
He then added: “We are putting (the WCR 7 project) on the back burner. I’m taking the resources and putting them somewhere else.”
That, too, poses problems. Thousands of homes are being approved for the area, bringing tens of thousands of new residents in short order.
Frustrated local officials privately say Weld County seems to be suggesting this is a case of their way or no highway.
Publicly, their criticism is more reserved. But in a letter sent to the commissioners this summer, the Longmont City Council warned that Weld County cannot abdicate its responsibility to plan for the future.
Weld County already has spent about $250,000 to study running the road through the park, and there seems to be no willingness on the part of the commissioners to find an acceptable compromise.
Geile said he believes the WCR 7 route through the park is the only possible solution on the west side of I-25.
“We spent in excess of $200,000 on that study,” Geile said. “This isn’t something that we just showed up and put some lines on a board.”
He added that if the project gets killed by either the county or Firestone, a transportation corridor will still have to be planned in the area. And since Mead and Firestone oppose the current plan, Geile said he interprets that as Mead and Firestone stepping up to take over the planning process.
“In other words, Firestone and Mead have said that they are going to take care of that transportation planning,” he said.
Longmont Mayor Julia Pirnack said all sides need to work together and set aside the bickering that has marked the project to date. Longmont has no control over the project, but its residents and workers will be significantly affected if Colo. Highway 119 and County Line Road become more congested.
“They are going to have to put a transportation structure in the area,” Pirnack said. “I do feel like (Weld County is) behind. But they are trying. It’s not like any city or county has the money to run out and build a perfect transportation system.”
Trevor Hughes can be reached
at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail