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A hiker in fall of 2019 continues on the Mount Dewey Trail in Green Mountain Falls, U.S. 24 in view stretching through the canyon. Gazette file photo

A mountain hamlet west of Colorado Springs has been steadily transforming into a hiking paradise, but that is now a destiny in question.

Green Mountain Falls Mayor Jane Newberry told The Gazette the Board of Trustees could vote next Tuesday "to close all trails and trailheads in the Town due to COVID-19 health concerns," as the item was listed in an agenda memo. The town manager has recommended the move.

"I don't think anyone should panic on either side," Newberry said. "It's just something we need to keep discussing and keep getting feedback on."

On one side of the closure debate are locals whose frustrations about outsiders have mounted during the pandemic. Worries of infection have grown along with the hiking crowds.

On the other side are resident advocates who have overseen the expansion of a 20-plus-mile hiking network, with the popular Catamount Trail as its centerpiece.

Those advocates include Rocco Blasi.

"To many residents I've talked to, (the coronavirus) seems like a thinly-veiled excuse to prompt trail closure," he said, citing concerns similar to those raised by opponents of the Manitou Incline closure. The city of Colorado Springs called that decision "under the guise of COVID-19" amid a continuing debate that has highlighted deep-seated angst over the Incline's impacts to parking, traffic and quality of life.

Those impacts are similarly felt in Green Mountain Falls, where trailheads are reached at the end of unpaved residential roads. Last month, a closed sign was stationed at the Mount Dewey trailhead after a resident threatened a lawsuit against the town, claiming the trail crossed his property.

Ralph LoCascio, who lives along the road used by visitors bound for the Catamount Trail, has a lawyer pushing the case for closing all trails. Photos have been included in correspondence with town leaders showing hikers scattered across the roads.

"Roads are not trails, and trails are not roads," reads the attorney's letter prepared for the Board of Trustees, on which LoCascio formerly served. "You don't drive a vehicle on trails built for pedestrian use, and you don't walk in the center of a road regulated for vehicular traffic."

LoCascio, a civil engineer, said the design should raise liability concerns for local government, which for years has posted trail maps in the heart of town.

"This has been going on far too long," LoCascio said.

In the 1990s, he said, he supported trail building — back when enthusiasts took to the town's surrounding woods to blaze foot paths. To LoCascio, it seemed to be an effort by locals and for locals.

"Then it got bigger and bigger," he said. "Now we're promoting (the trails), and it's just crazy."

That early trail-building revolution was led by Dick Bratton, who would become mayor. His band of volunteers would become the professionally trained Green Mountain Falls Trails Committee, which was officially established in 2009 and backed by the town through a state-run insurance program.

That coverage has ended. With recent legislation changing how committees are formed — comprised of residents only — the Board of Trustees effectively disbanded the trails group.

Blasi, the group's former chairman, called the board's vote last week "a double whammy" — an order for the team to "suspend all meeting and activity."

The action was taken to create a new outdoor-focused arm, Newberry said. The Parks, Recreation and Trails Advisory Committee is envisioned as "a group that talks more about the governmental end of things," the mayor said.

An agenda memo last week proposed a trails master plan that "may be a beneficial community process — a guiding document to move us forward with a united community vision."

Blasi feared and suspected the trails would be closed by leaders listening to what he called "the same tired arguments from the same vocal minority of local trail detractors."

Blasi argued parking was not a problem and that drivers, hikers and horseback riders "have co-existed on town public right-of-ways for generations."

He added: "Now more than ever the trails provide a refuge for those seeking calm or exercise."

There are many sides to consider, Newberry said. "You have to do the best you can for everyone, knowing you'll never make everyone happy."

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