Silver Creek needs another access road, but residents remain divided about where it should go
After more than three hours of public comment Wednesday regarding where to put a second access road into the Silver Creek neighborhood, the Summit County Council once again delayed a decision on the controversial topic, an open question that has been debated since at least 2009.
The capacity crowd of more than 75 people grew animated at times, once shouting down a commenter and admonishing her not to speak for others, another time telling a lawyer he had spoken for too long and did not live in the area.
Mostly, though, the crowd listened quietly and applauded after comments they agreed with.
There is only one way into and out of the neighborhood, which has roughly 500 homes. Approvals for Silver Creek development started in the 1960s when zoning regulations were more lax.
County officials have said it would never have been approved today without a second access point. They maintain the neighborhood needs a second way in and out to maintain public safety, to allow emergency vehicle access and to give residents a way out if Silver Creek Road is blocked or there is a mass evacuation precipitated by an event like a wildland fire.
Council Chair Roger Armstrong added that the road would improve daily transportation and active transportation options like biking and walking.
In 2015, county staff put forth four road options, which have varied only slightly in the intervening years. There are two options left on the table, though those still may change based on factors like public input and the preference of those who own the land where the road may go. An adversarial land acquisition process would likely increase project costs significantly.
One option calls for a frontage road roughly parallel to Interstate 80 that would cut across the Bitner Ranch itself, which the Bitner family opposes. The other option would move the road farther to the north along Mountain Life Church property and across land owned by the Peck family.
The crowd appeared split between the options, with most commentors favoring the option farther away from their home. Everyone seemed unified in opposition to increased traffic through neighborhoods, especially with a proposed 40 mph speed limit, and expressed safety concerns with a makeshift bus stop where about 100 kids are currently dropped off after school.
County staff planned to meet Tuesday to discuss the feedback and work on ways to mitigate concerns. That effort is complicated by the fact that the road’s location has not been determined, so things like specific traffic abatement techniques are difficult to plan.
The project’s costs are also difficult to estimate because of the increased price of acquiring land if the landowner opposes the move. The project’s cost has been estimated at between $2.5 million and $3 million.
All of the options would establish a connection from Silver Creek to Bitner Ranch Road, which lies a mile or so to the west. Bitner Ranch Road and Silver Creek Road both run north-south, separated by about a mile of open space, mostly owned by the Bitner family.
The Bitners are a fourth-generation ranching family that has been in Summit County for a century, one of the several Bitners who spoke Wednesday told the County Council. The family opposes a road that cuts across its ranch, as the frontage road option would, saying it would prevent future land conservation and threaten the family’s ranching operation.
Julie Bitner Hall said the family is “hanging on by our teeth” to their ranching way of life.
“(We’re) trying as hard as we can to keep those sheep running. Those bucks are not in that pasture because we like sheep and we like looking at them, they are our livelihood,” she said. “When you just casually say, ‘Oh, let’s just go right through the Bitners’ and not even care about us, how would you feel if you were us? … We gave all of our hay fields for the freeway. We have done a lot and now you want to just go right through our land.”
Proponents of the frontage road say it is the preferred option of public safety personnel and was included in the original land plat from the 1960s. Both of those points were called into question by county councilors.
A lawyer who said he represents several area landowners who support the frontage road distributed a 45-page letter to councilors in which he pointed to the likelihood of a lawsuit whichever way the issue is settled, and advised the County Council to side with the preference of safety personnel.
The meeting resembled previous public meetings in years past — including last year — that featured lengthy and impassioned public comment and no resolution.
New this time around were results of a community survey conducted by two Silver Creek residents who each prefer a different road location. They claimed their opposing viewpoints should validate the impartiality of the study.
The results indicated overwhelming support for adding a second access point, though some questioned whether residents supported a full-size road or just increased emergency access. The plan as contemplated calls for acquiring an 80-foot right of way with enough room for a multi-use path alongside a two-lane road.
Of the two options presented, a majority of the 320 survey respondents indicated a preference for the frontage road. Several commenters said they did not respond to or did not receive a survey.
One of the survey’s authors, Annette Velarde, told the County Council of the appearance of backroom dealing in which promises had been made to landowners including the Mountain Life Church and the Bitner family.
County staff countered that they have attempted to have conversations with every landowner whose holdings would potentially be used for a road. Closed meetings are standard when county officials discuss land transactions.
Armstrong said no deals were in place and took umbrage to the suggestion of corruption.
“There’s not something that someone could say that makes the top of my head want to explode more than being accused of corruption,” he responded. “We at worst overthink things. We look for opportunities to save county money because it’s the right thing to do.”
Resident Julie Reynolds Collins commented that she empathized with the County Council’s position, saying if the decision was easy, it would’ve been done long ago.
“What this has done has split our community,” Reynolds Collins said. “It’s just awful, we’re neighbors and here we are fighting over one alternative or another.”
Armstrong indicated the issue would once again be a priority in 2020 and would be picked up shortly into the new year.
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