JOANN KALENAK/DCCR BLOGGER — Who doesn’t love a nice trail? Delta County Commissioners, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), the Town of Hotchkiss, and the Nature Connection are all working together to develop a long-awaited trail from North Fork High School to Delta County Fairgrounds.

Dubbed North Fork Miners Trail, the sketch plan (pictured) shows a 1.6 mile route originating at the North Fork Pool, Park and Recreation area located near North Fork High School, traveling the ditch road to River Ridge Road and up to Hwy 92 where it crosses the Gunnison and lands at the Maloney House at the Delta County Fairgrounds. The project is estimated to cost $1.6 million.

This is a huge project that has been more than a decade in the works with many moving parts including CDOT rights-of-way, private and public land, irrigation ditches, wetlands, and the buying and selling of property using taxpayer dollars.

After extensive stakeholder and public outreach, the 2018 Recreation and Trails Master Plan identified the high school-to-fairgrounds trail opportunity as one of several priorities, but its precise route has been hotly debated. Two initial plans — the one described earlier in this story and an alternative route, supported by several locals that completely avoids the Hwy 92 segment — each has its own advantages and challenges.

“There has been lots of back and forths about the route to balance the needs of landowners and the public,” said Nature Connection Executive Director Ben Graves in an email to DCCR. The organization is a strong advocate and participating partner in the project and has secured funding from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to help pay for some of the services needed to complete the trail including engineering, surveying and environmental studies.

County Commissioner Wendell Koontz, the project’s newest champion, is actively pursuing his favored trail plan, a portion of which runs along HWY 92. He’s had conversations with CDOT about obtaining Special Use Permits and other avenues to allow the trail on CDOT right-of-way along the highway segment. It’s unclear whether a special use permit will be necessary. CDOT has strict requirements when it comes to activities in and around its right-of-way and this has long been one of the biggest hurdles blocking the development of this particular trail in the past.

Responding via email, CDOT’s Montrose Resident Engineer Raelene Shelly, P.E. told DCCR, “They [the county] are planning to apply for Multi-Modal Options Funding (MMOF) through the Gunnison Valley Transportation Planning Region and if they are awarded that money, the trail project [along the Hwy 92 trail segment] will become what CDOT calls a Local Agency project and all plans, specs, and construction management will need to conform with state regulations. Also, they will then not need a Special Use Permit because CDOT will be part of the project.”

A second major hurdle necessary for easy access to Hwy 92 required County Commissioners to purchase land for $325,000 to accommodate a river crossing along the highway. In a somewhat convoluted and complicated real estate maneuver, the county is currently subdividing the land into two one-acre lots — one to sell and one to keep. The portion for sale required the county to add adjacent county-owned land to satisfy a county requirement of a one-acre lot size minimum.

At this week’s public meeting, Commissioners accepted an offer of $320,000 for the newly created portion they decided to sell, making the remaining county portion a net $5,000/acre cash expense to taxpayers — an expense not initially budgeted in the county’s preliminary estimates for the project.

During the same meeting, Commissioners also agreed to pay $12,060 for 1.6 acres along River Ridge Road. This acquisition represents a substantial portion of the proposed trail but the road is currently owned by the Town of Hotchkiss. The county plans to acquire it and spend $150,000 to rebuild the road and include a sidewalk, which will be part of the trail. The status of the negotiations between the town and the county is currently unknown. The county is also negotiating several other easement/access agreements with landowners along the proposed trail and it’s unknown if further purchases are expected.

A major portion of the proposed trail runs along Short Ditch just east of the high school and the county plans to pipe the ditch and place the trail on top. Here too, the status of negotiations are unknown.