Neighbors fight plan for Bear Mountain meadow

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By Vicky Gits

About a dozen residents of the Bear Mountain Vista subdivision turned out on Oct. 16 to protest local developer Norm Lewis’ plan to subdivide and build four more houses in their 108-home neighborhood.

The prospect of more homes on Bear Mountain has gained the acceptance of the fire authority and the Jefferson County planning and zoning director, but the planning commission voted to deny, and the neighbors oppose it.

On Tuesday morning, the county commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of re-subdividing a large lot into four lots for the four additional homes.

Bear Mountain Vista is about 3 miles southeast of Evergreen and about 2,000 feet higher off Little Cub Creek Road and Stanley Park Drive. Numerous houses are built on steep lots surrounded by dense pine forest.

At issue was whether to OK the developer’s request to divide a 33-acre meadow parcel into four lots of about 8 acres each, instead of four lots of 1.9, 1.3, 9.5 and 20 acres each.

Jefferson County land development regulations adopted in 1978, after Bear Mountain Vista was platted, dictate no more than 35 homes may exist on a cul-de-sac if there is no secondary access. A legal cul-de-sac also may not be more than 1 mile long. But the planning director and fire authorities are able to grant waivers if they choose.

Jefferson County Planning Director John Wolforth granted Lewis, of Buffalo Park Development Co., a waiver of the cul-de-sac rule to allow the four new lots on July 11.

The Evergreen fire marshal also endorsed the proposal.

“The presence of a second cistern on the mountain will help us speed our attack against fires,” said Frank Dearborn, fire marshal with Evergreen Fire/Rescue, at the hearing.

A consultant for the developer maintains the cul-de-sac is less than a mile long based on the distance from the access point (Stanley Park Road and Bear Mountain Drive) to the lots (0.8 miles).

The neighbors argued against more houses, citing the wildfire danger in the steep and remote area as well as the questionable amount of available well water.

At the end of the meeting, the commissioners voted to close the public hearing and postponed the vote to Oct. 23 to allow time to consult with the attorney.

Split decision

On Sept. 26 the planning commission rejected the proposal on a 4-3 vote, but the planning staff disagreed and approved the plan, consistent with the planning director’s decision to grant a waiver. When asked for a rationale for this decision, case manager Sean Madden had no comment. A case summary for the hearing says, “Staff recommends the Board of County Commissioners find that the proposal substantially conforms with the Land Development Regulation because all applicable regulations have been satisfied ee” Fire department requirements also must be met.

Dearborn testified that a few more homes wouldn’t be a problem because the developer promised to install a 20,000-gallon cistern, which would address the worst-case scenario.

The homeowners’ consensus was that it was foolish to build more housing in the area because there was only one good road out of the area and that the back road, Fern Gulch, was four-wheel-drive only, very steep and full of boulders.

Margaret Cross, a resident of Bear Mountain Vista and president of the homeowner association, addressed both the water and wildfire issues.

“He is asking for wells even though he knows the water levels are dropping. He knows this, and it’s not a trivial matter,” Cross told the board.

“This is not 37 houses on the cul-de-sac. In fact, this is a huge cul-de-sac that includes 5 miles of road and 108 houses,” Cross said. “You need to look at the entire cul-de-sac and the ability to evacuate in wildfire conditions ee If a fire moved uphill, it would cut off access. We know we have a problem, and we don’t want to add to it.”

Cross says installing a 20,000-gallon cistern to serve the whole development is not a substitute for secondary access.

“A cistern is not the same thing. There seems to be a change in policy,” she said. “We recently heard of five workers burned to death in Georgetown for lack of secondary access.”

Lewis already has permission to build two homes on the two larger lots but not four homes on four lots. “Why not use the two good wells and the two good lots? ee We object to increasing lots at the expense and the safety of the homeowners,” Cross said.

Several people testifed that Fern Gulch Road isn’t an acceptable alternative becaue it is too rough for anyone in a standard vehicle.

The developer’s view is that the four houses with the required cistern provide a neighborhood safety bonus compared to the status quo. “We asked for a waiver on grounds we are providing increased fire protection,” said Lewis. His company has owned land in the area for 35 years.

“What we said in the hearing was we recongize it was a cul-de-sac, and the problem of 108 houses exists with or without our application,” he said. “The fire marshal said it would be better to have the extra water. It’s a trade-off. We add two houses but provide 20,000 gallons.”

Fern Gulch Road, a historic road that crosses private property, could be used as a getaway route in an emergency, Lewis said. But it would be almost impossible to get the homeowners involved to agree to upgrade the road to the level of secondary access.

Lewis said he has drilled four successful wells ranging from 400 to 1,200 feet and he has official permission to use them, despite the homeowners’ protests.

“It is very hard to prove my well affects my neighbor’s well. We don’t know. That’s what the hearing officer said. ee With the fractured-rock environment, it’s a risk everyone takes.”

Inherent dangers

Homeowner Jerry Roberts said he can navigate Fern Gulch Road in a Jeep but wouldn’t be able to use a Corvette or a Volvo.

“I want to clarify the abolutely inherent dangers facing residents 2 miles from the junction of Stanley Park and Bear Mountain Drive,” said Roberts, describing the feeling of watching a nearby pine tree blow up in flames after someone started a bonfire in 2006.

He worries about setting a bad precedent. “You have numerous 35-acre parcels to be replatted. ee You could build another 38 homes up there,” Roberts said.

Other neighbors expressed their gradually intensifying concerns over the groundwater supply.

Richard Gristak of Bedar Mountain Drive said he had to increase the depth of his well from 200 feet in 1977 to 400 feet in 1987 and then 1,150 feet in 1999 at a cost of $25,000. “Sixty to 70 percent of the houses across from us had to drill new wells,” Gristak said.

Mark Nobels said Fern Gulch Road is “at best a Jeep trail.”

Bear Mountain Vista resident Jim Peterson, vice president of the Bear Mountain Homeowners Association, said the total number of homes in the subdivision is the issue, not that the proposed new lots are only a mile from the main access point.

He said the owners bought their houses based on their understanding of the circumstances that existed at the time. “Changing the rules later is not fair to their property rights,” Peterson said.

On behalf of the developer, Doug Reed of Fine Line Consulting Inc. of Denver said the cul-de-sac isn’t a traditional cul-de-sac because the houses are closer together than in newer subdivisions. “The farthest house (from the access point) is only 2 miles away, not 5,” he said.

“There is no fire risk in the area we are talking about,” Reed said. “The benefit of a cistern at the central point outweighs the burden.”