Lifestyle, dollars at the crossroads: Intersection becoming issue of tax money, rural ambience

May 1, 2011
photo - Burgess and Black Forest roads in northern El Paso County. Photo by DEBBIE KELLEY, THE GAZETTE
Burgess and Black Forest roads in northern El Paso County. Photo by DEBBIE KELLEY, THE GAZETTE 

Road rage has erupted in Black Forest.

The conflict isn’t between drivers in this unincorporated hamlet in northeastern El Paso County. The dispute involves community activists who want to preserve the quietude and slower rural lifestyle, the elected official who represents the area on the board of county commissioners, and county staff.

The road of contention: Black Forest, where it crosses Burgess.

Improvements to the intersection have been on the books since 2005, but a lack of money pushed the work aside.

Last year, county commissioners gave county staff the green light to relocate utilities, add left and right turn lanes, upgrade traffic signals and fix drainage issues.

The commission allocated $800,000 in leftover funds from the 2009 transportation budget. The project, when completed, is expected to cost $1.5 million.

Staff members have spent about $60,000 preparing for property acquisition, said county engineer Andre Brackin. After finishing the project’s design in-house, consultants were hired to determine property values of right-of-ways and easements that need to be acquired from nearby property owners, he said.

Visible signs of what’s to come started in March when crews marked proposed easements for utility lines.

Now, the project is up in the air. Commissioner Darryl Glenn, who took office in January, isn’t convinced the intersection is a priority and is trying to stop it.

“I’m going to freeze the dollars and put the brakes on this project,” he said. “I don’t think the staff has done an appropriate job of explaining that this is a top priority. We should take a step back and re-evaluate it.

“People are frustrated, not just with this project but with others. They want accountability as to where their tax dollars are going, and I don’t think we’ve clearly identified our priorities in funding these projects.”

Brackin said the intersection was earmarked for improvements six years ago because of increasing traffic and safety hazards from above-ground utilities.

“From an engineering standpoint, there are many, many needs in road, bridge and signal improvements. The county commissioners set the priorities, and the department was given direction to start this project. There are now some unrecoverable funds and staff time involved,” he said.

Glenn argues that residents initially may have embraced the enhancements, but no longer want them.

“Engineers say they have to do certain things to meet safety guidelines, but people are very concerned that what is planned is overkill,” he said.

Brackin said it could not be downsized without correcting safety issues, which follow national, state and local engineering standards.

“Downsizing means you turn it into a maintenance project, and then we wouldn’t do the turn lanes. Traffic volume is on the verge of meeting the warrants for dedicated lanes, and we’re taking growth into consideration,” he said.

Ryan Wanner, owner of R&R Coffee Café and a member of the Black Forest Business Group, said business owners are worried about the impacts to the stores during the construction, which Brackin said will take about six months. Retailers include restaurants, a lumber yard, a liquor store and a jeweler.

Property owners also are concerned that easements will encroach their parking lots, Wanner said.

Plus, “The design doesn’t fit the character of the forest,” he said. “Black Forest is very strongly holding onto the relaxed, two-lane country road feeling.”

Brackin said the project would have minimal impact on adjacent properties and is designed to improve, not hinder, access to the businesses.

“Parking is already in the public right-of-way at several of these businesses,” he said.

Dan and MaiLe Dreyfuss, owners of Black Forest Pies and Grinders, said as business owners they favor the improvements because of the promise of increased business. But as local residents, “It’s too much.”

“The utility work seems like it needs to be done, but there isn’t that much traffic congestion,” said MaiLe Dreyfuss, a Black Forest native. “The whole point of living here is to slow your pace down and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere.”

Glenn will need a majority of the five commission votes to halt the work.

“I’m stopping it before we get to the point of no return — we don’t have a contract out yet,” Glenn said. “I want the $800,000 to go to the county’s priorities.”

Meanwhile, Brackin said, the project is continuing.

“The commissioners have the right to re-prioritize, but until there’s a new resolution that gives us a new set of priorities, we’re moving ahead,” he said.

The item is not on next week’s commission agenda.

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