Year in review: Looking back on the top stories of 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As we begin 2020, I am reminded of the expression, “Hindsight is 20/20.” And it made me ponder, while compiling the top news stories of 2019, what we, as a community of readers, can learn from the news and events of the previous year.
After perusing some of our most impactful stories of 2019, I’ve discovered several qualities that I believe exemplify the nature of the people who live, work and play in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. The challenges we face in our mountain community — the lack of affordable housing, the high cost of living, restricted access to mental health resources and societal issues like sexual assault, suicide and substance abuse — are not unique, but what distinguishes us from other towns and cities is how we respond to these challenges.
So here are a few of my “hindsight” takeaways based on the headlines of 2019.
The people who live here are a generous bunch. Time and time again, individuals, businesses and organizations come together to rally around those in need.
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Nothing exemplifies this more than the community’s response to the tragic death of Sancy Shaw on Christmas Eve 2018. In the months following the crash, Shaw’s 6-year-old daughter Charlee slowly recovered from the crash that killed her mother, and outpouring of support shown to the Shaw family has been truly incredible. Thousands of dollars were raised to build a soccer field in Sancy’s memory at North Routt Charter School where she was a teacher, money was also donated to create the Sancy Shaw Memorial Scholarship Fund, and hundreds of people lined the route home when Charlee was finally able to leave the Children’s Hospital in Denver and return to her family in Clark.
Steamboat Springs is also home to passionate people who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe. This past year, the Routt County Courthouse lawn has served as a gathering place for citizens rallying around the issue of women’s rights, students speaking out about gun violence, activists drawing attention to the issue of climate change and community members coming together in support of public lands.
People also made their voices heard by turning out to vote in some big elections in 2019.
An annexation vote on West Steamboat Neighborhoods was approved handily with 60 percent of voters casting their ballots in favor of the issue. The vote on a new preschool through eighth-grade school in the Steamboat II area also received voter approval, but by a much slimmer margin, proving that every vote counts. And city voters approved the first property tax in four decades to support Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue.
These elections revealed the effectiveness of grassroots campaigning — knocking on doors and being available to answer voters question face to face — and confirmed that growth is occurring, whether we like it or not, and it’s happening west of town.
And finally, a review of the most popular stories based on page views indicates that Steamboat Pilot & Today readers have a few favorite topics. We can’t go wrong when we report on the weather, snowfall at Steamboat Resort, fireworks, new restaurants and wildlife of any kind — from bears breaking into Subarus, an elk that walked over 250 miles to give birth or mountain lions on the prowl.
And without further ado, here are the editor’s picks for biggest news stories of 2019.
Going out with a bang: World-record firework attempt fails
Making history does not come easy.
After six years of planning and countless hours of meticulous work, Tim Borden’s attempt to launch the world’s largest aerial fireworks shell during the Winter Carnival’s Night Extravaganza on Feb. 9 ended in disappointment.
An adjudicator from Guinness World Records watched with Borden from the top of Howelsen Hill Ski Area as the shell exploded immediately after it launched, sending bright sparks flying into the night sky.
The firework, with a diameter of 62 inches, was supposed to shoot about a mile into the sky before combusting. The shell malfunctioned as it attempted to launch from the mortar and exploded before it took flight.
“If setting a world record was easy, a lot more people would do it,” Borden said.
Suspects officially charged with 3 felonies in connection with Steamboat man’s murder
Three people from Craig were arrested for the murder of 26-year-old Steamboat Springs man Elliot Stahl.
William Clive Ellifritz, 26, Brooke L. Forquer, 21, and Skyla Marie Piccolo-Labbs, 23, each face one count of murder in the first degree, a Class 1 felony, along with one count of aggravated robbery, a Class 3 felony, and one count of conspiracy to commit robbery, a Class 5 felony. They also were charged with one count of abuse of a corpse, a misdemeanor.
According to complaints filed by the district attorney’s office, the three defendants have been accused of causing the death of Stahl and stealing money, a backpack and prescription medications from him.
Stahl’s body was discovered Oct. 14 by a fisherman in the Routt County National Forest off of Forest Service Road 900, which is the road that leads to Stillwater Reservoir in the Flat Tops.
Steamboat Springs bans disposable plastic bags
Steamboat Springs City Council voted, 4-3, to ban disposable plastic bags at Steamboat’s largest grocery stores.
Customers are encouraged to bring reusable bags, but paper bags will be available for a 20-cent fee. Those using federal food assistance will be exempt from the fee.
The ban will take effect Oct. 1, though the city plans to kick off an outreach program about the ban this summer.
The ban was brought forward by a group of Steamboat area high school students in Teen Council, which aimed to reduce the impact the bags have on the environment.
“I feel like this is going to start something bigger in the community, and it can inspire other youth, and I really hope it does,” said Andrew Peterson, a Steamboat Springs High School senior who served on the Teen Council’s executive committee during the past year.
Home sweet homecoming for 6-year-old Charlee Shaw after critical injury in Christmas Eve crash
Almost two months after his wife was killed in a Christmas Eve car crash that left his 6-year-old daughter fighting for her life at Children’s Hospital in Aurora, Clark resident Brett Shaw will finally have all of his children back home under the same roof.
“It’s definitely a wonderful feeling to be bringing her home, and we are very excited to get her back in school,” Shaw said of his daughter Charlee’s expected return home Wednesday. “She is going to start going back to school part time; we will have therapy happening at the school as well as in town.”
Shaw has been overwhelmed by the support he and his family have received from the community in the months after his wife of 15 years, Sancy Shaw, died in a two-vehicle crash on Interstate 70 near Genessee. The woman who was driving the car that struck Sancy’s vehicle was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana at the time of the accident.
Shaw said his daughter’s recovery, while slow, has been a miracle.
Fastest in North America: Steamboat Resort celebrates opening of record-breaking new gondola
When asked what people think about Steamboat Resort’s new $15 million gondola during its premiere Nov. 23, the consensus was clear: it’s fast.
Clocking a ride time of just under eight minutes, it’s the speediest eight-person gondola in North America, according to Rob Perlman, president and chief operating officer off Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.
“You’ll really feel that speed when you launch out of the terminal,” he said.
This has been a record-breaking winter season at the resort, and it has just begun. The mountain opened to the public Nov. 15, the earliest start in its 57-year history.
The new gondola also made headlines when it broke down one day after it opened for operations. Crews worked around the clock to repair the gondola, which reopened a week later. The breakdown was caused by a malfunction in the gondola’s main gearbox.
Steamboat City Council votes to annex land to be developed as West Steamboat Neighborhoods
After years of discussion, the Steamboat Springs City Council narrowly approved an ordinance annexing about 190 acres west of Steamboat Springs on Jan. 22.
“We have a lot of work left to do,” Brynn Grey Partners CEO David O’Neil said after the meeting. O’Neil’s company is the developer behind the project. “We’ve got a second reading. A couple council members have made it clear that there are a couple things we can do to earn their support, so we’re going to work on that.”
Brynn Grey seeks to build 450 homes over the next 16 to 20 years in three neighborhoods known as West Steamboat Neighborhoods.
“People need to understand; this is just the beginning of the approval process,” he said. “We have to get plats approved, development plans approved, building permits approved. We’ve got a huge amount of work ahead of us.”
Council members Robin Crossan, Jason Lacy, Scott Ford and Lisel Petis supported the ordinance. Sonja Macys, Heather Sloop and Kathi Meyer opposed the ordinance.
The council opted not to send the question of annexation to a ballot measure, but a group of citizens successfully petitioned the measure onto the June ballot.
Voters approve West Steamboat annexation
Steamboat Springs just got 191 acres larger.
Preliminary results show that city voters passed the West Steamboat Neighborhoods annexation in a June 25 election with 2,353 people — 59.7% — voting in favor of the annexation, and 1,587 — 40.3% — against it.
Steamboat Springs City Council narrowly approved an ordinance annexing the land on Feb. 5. The annexation election came about after the Let’s Vote Steamboat committee gathered enough signatures on a referendum petition to send the ordinance to the ballot.
The annexation incorporates an additional 191 acres west of current city limits into the city. On that land, Brynn Grey Partners plans to build three neighborhoods with a total of 450 homes built over the next 16 to 20 years.
Steamboat council approves development plan for new hotel on Pine Grove Road
Steamboat Springs City Council approved a development plan to build a Residence Inn by Marriott behind the Safeway grocery store after a half hour of mostly negative public comments followed by debate between council members Feb. 5.
“We go to this decision based on the code we have and not the code we want,” said Scott Ford, who voted to approve the 110-room hotel project at the corner of Pine Grove Road and Rollingstone Drive. The property sits in the middle of a community commercial zone in the city.
Council members Sonja Macys and Lisel Petis voted against the development because of complaints about traffic and how the project will affect the riparian area along Fish Creek that runs along the south side of the 2.7-acre property. Council members Ford, Kathi Meyer and Robin Crossan, who voted in favor of the proposal, pointed out that the group of developers and owners from Steamboat Springs and Denver worked closely with the city to meet every criteria the building code had set out, including setting the building back from the creek and treating storm water drainage.
Council members Jason Lacy and Heather Sloop recused themselves from the discussion and the vote.
In March, Steamboat Citizens for Responsible Growth, Inc. filed a lawsuit against the city and Cypress 16, developers of the hotel. On Dec. 27, Judge Michael O’Hara ruled in favor of the city and affirmed the council’s decision to approve the development plan.
It was close, but Steamboat voters support school ballot measures
By the narrowest of margins, voters passed Referendum 4C, a $79.5 million bond issue to build a new school and upgrade existing Steamboat Springs School District campuses, and Referendum 4B, an accompanying operational mill levy.
Just 69 more voters cast their vote in favor of 4C than against it, while 113 more votes were cast in favor of 4B. In total, 3,580 voted in favor of 4B and 3,467 voted against it, and 4C earned 3,552 “yes” votes compared to 3,483 “no” votes.
Even the margin of victory was narrow, 4B and 4C were not close enough to trigger an automatic recount. The ballot verification process could result in a recount, but only if all recounted votes were “no” votes, according to Routt County Clerk Kim Bonner.
The $79.5 million bond will fund the building a new pre-K through eighth-grade school on the district’s 70-acre property in Steamboat II. Of that total, $27 million is designated for repairs, renovations and upgrades at all six of the district’s buildings. The cost of the new school was estimated at $52.5 million.
Yampa Valley Housing Authority breaks ground on Alpenglow Village, its latest affordable housing complex
The Yampa Valley Housing Authority broke ground in May on its newest development, Alpenglow Village. The complex on Pine Grove Road, just north of Walgreens, will include three buildings containing 72 apartments for low- to middle-income Routt County residents.
Of those, 48 units will serve households earning 30% to 60% of Routt County’s area median income, and 24 will serve those making 61% to 120% of area median income.
Area median income for a single-person household is $60,700. Area median income for a household of four is $86,700.
The Housing Authority’s most recent project, the Reserves at Steamboat, features two- and three-bedroom units and targets residents earning 40% to 60% of area median income. Alpenglow Village targets a broader income bracket with single-, two- and three-bedroom units.
The Housing Authority also announced in September it was entering into an agreement with private developer Gorman and Co. to build 84 rental units on Steamboat Springs’ west side in a development that will be known as Sunlight Crossing. These units will be deed-restricted to Routt County households making between 80% and 120% of the area median income.
The project is slated for completion in 2021 and is being built without the support of federal tax credits, which were part of the funding equation that made the Housing Authority’s Reserves at Steamboat and Alpenglow Village projects possible.
Steamboat Resort to donate $500K to new Yampa River Fund
Every spring, the snow you ski and ride on at Steamboat Resort melts into Walton, Burgess, Priest and Fish creeks before trickling downstream into the Yampa River. From there, what was once Champagne Powder on the mountain becomes the water that Yampa Valley drinks from, plays on and grows its food with.
On Sept. 19, Steamboat Resort announced it plans to donate $500,000 to the Yampa River Fund as a founding donor to the new endowed fund, which will pay for projects to protect the Yampa River’s flow. The donation is the largest made by the resort in its 57-year history.
“The Yampa River is the lifeblood of our community, of our valley and really Northwest Colorado,” Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Rob Perlman said. “The Yampa River is just such a part of our community that we really felt that this was a great cause to get behind.”
The Yampa River Fund will pay for three types of projects aimed at benefiting all water users, from South Routt ranchers to Steamboat rafters to people drinking water from Craig faucets and the endangered fish living in Dinosaur National Monument. This includes leasing water to boost flows in dry years, actions to restore the river health and water infrastructure improvements.
Snowstang to offer bus rides between Denver, Steamboat starting next weekend
Snowstang, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s latest initiative to provide transportation to recreational areas and reduce traffic on weekends, is set to offer round-trip, weekend bus services between Denver and Steamboat Springs starting Saturday, Dec. 14.
The bus will transport people from Denver to Steamboat Resort and Howelsen Hill Ski Area. Local officials hope the service boosts local tourism and gives Routt County residents an easier way to get to the Front Range.
Snowstang buses will run every weekend from Dec. 14 through April 19, according to CDOT.
New combined law enforcement building in Steamboat opens to public
After more than a year of construction, the combined law enforcement facility on the west side of town opened to the public on June 24.
The $19.3 million building, a joint project between the Routt County Sheriff’s Office and the Steamboat Springs Police Department, allowed both the city and county to save money on construction costs and promote collaboration between the two agencies.
The collaborative nature of the project has required a lot of logistical work, according to Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins. Not unlike roommates divvying up household chores, the two agencies have split costs for building and maintaining the facility.
The city footed about 60% of the construction costs, and the county paid the remaining 40%. A $1 million state grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs also helped fund construction. Signed agreements between the two agencies allocate coverage of future expenses, which range from electrical bills to toilet paper.
Steamboat voters approve city’s 1st property tax in 40 years
Steamboat Springs used to be one of only six municipalities in Colorado that didn’t levy a property tax. Starting in 2020, that’s no longer the case.
On Nov. 5, ballot measure 2A passed, earning 2,882 “yes” votes to 1,831 “no” votes. It will levy a 2-mill property tax on properties in city limits to fund fire and emergency services. While other entities levy property taxes on buildings in city limits, the city hasn’t been the beneficiary of a property tax since 1978.
“I want to thank the voters of Steamboat for trusting us, and now, it’s up to City Council to deliver on the promises,” said city council member Kathi Meyer, who led the campaign in support of the measure. “I think — when we put a reasonable proposal in front of them — we have very smart voters.”
Under a 2-mill property tax, homeowners will pay an annual tax of about $15 per $100,000 of actual valuation. Commercial property owners will pay $58 per $100,000 of actual valuation under the proposed tax.
Revenue from the 2-mill property tax is forecast to generate $1.4 million to $1.5 million in annual revenue.
‘This is systemic’: Parents voice allegations of negative culture at high school
Six different people addressed the Steamboat Springs School Board during a Dec. 9 board meeting, expressing concern about what was described as a culture at Steamboat Springs High School under which female students were not being heard or protected amid allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
“I am not here to talk about any specific facts tonight or any specific issues or allegations,” said Lisel Petis, executive director of Advocates of Routt County. “But one thing has become very clear from all the concerns that we have received — is that right now, students and their parents are feeling unheard and unsupported and unsafe in the high school.”
The small room was packed with about 75 people, most standing against the wall or sitting on the floor. The group included about a dozen students.
At a school board work session on Dec. 18, which was scheduled in response to parent complaints, Meeks detailed the school district’s plan to hire an independent consultant to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault and to recommend ways to improve school culture.
‘In Our Shoes’ eight-week series on sexual assault in the Yampa Valley
The Steamboat Pilot & Today published an in-depth reporting project called “In Our Shoes” in July and August. The eight-week series, which involved the entire news team, focused on the issue of sexual assault in Steamboat Springs and Routt County.
“The name for the series originated from the idea that you can’t really understand someone else’s circumstances until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” said Editor Lisa Schlichtman. “We have taken that concept and applied it to our reporting. By reporting on the issue over the next eight weeks and then bringing people together to openly discuss sexual assault using art as a vehicle for more open conversation, we hope to shine light on a local problem that has remained in the shadows for far too long.”
The series culminated with a community event at Bud Werner Memorial Library’s Library Hall featuring shoe art, spoken word performances and a panel discussion on the issue of sexual assault with local experts followed by a month-long art exhibit at the Depot Art Center with weekly special events including a book club discussion and a self-defense class.
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