Routt County OKs funding to preserve Oak Creek trail system
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve $250,000 in funding to keep 140 acres of private land in Oak Creek accessible for public recreation and prevent it from future development.
Their contribution represents the final piece of funding to purchase a conservation easement for the land, known as the Oak Creek Mountain Park. A portion of the money, about $50,000, will go toward reimbursing transaction costs, according to an agenda document from the commissioners’ meeting. The easement is contingent upon Oak Creek closing on a deal to buy the property, an effort that has been years in the making.
The property, owned by the Garrity family, has become a popular, year-round place for people to hike, bike and ride horses on the 4.5-mile trail system. Russ Garrity developed most of the trails himself over the past 15 years and has invited the public to use them.
Three years ago, he and his wife, Clay, decided to sell the property and move to downtown Oak Creek. When they were unable to find a buyer who agreed to keep the trail system public, they asked Oak Creek officials if the town would be interested. In March, Oak Creek Town Board officials authorized the purchase, but it has taken several additional months to accumulate funding and finalize the conservation easement.
Behind much of the effort is Mary Alice Page-Allen, Oak Creek’s former clerk and town administrator who left in October to work as Hayden’s economic development director. She sees the Oak Creek Mountain Park as the “crown jewel” of the town. It is walking distance from downtown and boosts the local economy through outdoor recreation, she said.
Through an agreement with Oak Creek officials, Page-Allen has stayed on part time until the property purchase is finalized. The deal is scheduled to close Nov. 26, but Garrity cautioned it could take an extra week.
“We are down in the trenches, just making sure things are squared away,” Page-Allen said of closing on the deal.
Garrity described her as “the glue that held this thing together.” Her confidence and expertise are what convinced Garrity and his wife to be patient with the deal.
“This would not happen without her involvement,” Garrity said. “We wouldn’t have done it.”
A citizens advisory board that oversees the Routt County Purchase of Development Rights program met to discuss the conservation of the Oak Creek Mountain Park. Page-Allen serves on the Purchase of Development Rights board but has not participated in any discussion of the conservation easement to avoid a conflict of interest.
According to a county resolution dating back to 2005, the Purchase of Development Rights program receives annual funding through a 1.5-mill mill levy. The money is to be used “solely for the preservation of natural areas, including lands that preserve water quality, wildlife habitat, working ranches and scenic landscapes and vistas,” according to the resolution.
The board recommended the conservation of the Oak Creek Mountain Park to the Routt County commissioners on the grounds that it would protect natural habitats and wildlife. Its sprawling landscape, smattered with scrub oak, pine trees and aspen glades, is representative of the region’s unique topography.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan, who lives near the park, refers to it as “the Little Emerald,” due to its likeness to Emerald Mountain in Steamboat. He has ridden his mountain bike on the trails, which he favors for having packed dirt rather than rocky or loose terrain.
Some recent additions have expanded the recreation opportunities. Last year, Garrity added a snowshoe trail that attracted winter visitors. His wife, Clay, said there also are options for cross country and backcountry skiing, but she was reluctant to reveal the locations of some of the secret “powder stashes” on the property.
She prefers to ride horses on the trails, sometimes to the chagrin of her husband and his trail maintenance efforts.
“Russ did tell me there were certain trails I couldn’t ride on, then I’d ride there anyway,” she said, laughing.
The Gates Family Foundation, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, the State of Colorado Department of Local Affairs, and the Town of Oak Creek also contributed to purchasing the conservation easement, valued at $350,000, according to the Purchase of Development Rights program. The Yampa Valley Land Trust, a local conservation group, helped to secure additional grant funding.
While Garrity said he and his wife could have gotten much more money for the property if they had sold it to a private buyer, it is more important to them to keep it available to the public.
“It’s so worth it to us to see this use of the property, versus someone who would pay us full price but wasn’t going to keep the trails open,” Garrity said.
Commissioner Beth Melton said the conservation easement marks a victory for local recreation as a whole.
“It represents a really great amenity for the community, especially for the people in South Routt, but really for people all across the county,” she said.
The county plans to purchase about 9 acres of land from Oak Creek once the town acquires the Garrity property. This land is not part of the Oak Creek Mountain Park. It will be used to expand the county’s Road and Bridge Department, which has a shop adjacent to the 9 acres.
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