Friday, January 25, 2008

Willow Creek Neighbors and Snowmobiles

A neighborhood divided
North Routt subdivision split on snowmobile use
By Matt Stensland (Contact) Steambaot Pilot/TODAY
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Steamboat Springs — For more than 30 years, snowmobiles had been a common sight on the county roads that wind through the Willow Creek Pass subdivision. That changed last November, when officials realized state law prohibited snowmobiling on county roadways.

Not everyone in the North Routt County neighborhood was happy with the change, and residents say the result has been ongoing conflict between snowmobile advocates and detractors. Last week, those advocates appealed to the Routt County Board of Commissioners for help. They didn’t get the answer some had hoped for.

The Willow Creek Pass subdivision was established in 1972, just an uphill climb on Routt County Road 129 from Steamboat Lake. Snowmobiles were all but a necessity then because the county didn’t plow roads in the area.

In recent years, snowmobiles in the subdivision have taken on primarily a recreational use. With public lands less than a mile away, many residents could walk out their doors, hop on their sleds and enjoy the quick ride to an extensive area of rideable terrain. Some residents say the proximity to such terrain is the reason they moved to Willow Creek Pass.

“Snowmobiling has a long history of use within this neighborhood, and the homeowners association has historically taken responsibility to govern and control this use,” said Jeff Dillingham, who bought a home in the subdivision four years ago.

As the subdivision grew, so did the number of complaints about trespassing, noise and inappropriate behavior by snowmobilers.

In 2000, there were 85 homes built or permitted for construction in Willow Creek. Today, there are 153.

Snowmobile complaints increased when the density approached 100 homes, and HOA president Lanny Mack thinks the complaints will continue to increase as the subdivision is built out with more than 450 homes.

“More homes mean more snowmobilers, more traffic and more conflicts and problems,” Mack said.

Snowmobile use has become a divisive issue in the subdivision, pitting pro-snowmobile homeowners against those who see snowmobiles as a hazard detracting from their quality of life.

In a letter to Routt County Commissioners, Mack, who has served as the HOA president for six years and is against snowmobile use in the subdivision, wrote there have been incidents of threats and harassment.

“This harassment has included midnight visits from half dozen snowmobilers, groups of snowmobilers riding around their house and even snowmobiles riding on their roof,” Mack stated.

On Thursday, Mack said those are isolated incidents.

“Some people get frustrated and resort to that,” Mack said. “That’s not reflective of the community at all. You just have a couple people that are very passionate.”

In November 2007, it was discovered that snowmobile use on county roads had never been lawful. Prior to that, Mack said the HOA was relying on what proved to be bad information from the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, which had told them the law enforcement agency had no control over snowmobile use on the roads.

In 2005, homeowners elected not to prohibit snowmobile use in the neighborhood, said Dillingham, an avid snowmobiler who is one of several homeowners spearheading the effort to allow snow machining.

After the 2005 HOA meeting, a snowmobile committee was formed to help educate and enforce rules for snowmobile use in the neighborhood.

“During the winter of 2005-06, this committee was extremely successful in controlling reasonable snowmobile use within the neighborhood,” Dillingham said. “It was the difference between night and day.”

Last year, the homeowners association requested signs from the Routt County Road and Bridge Department to help communicate snowmobile rules. In November, Road and Bridge officials told them the only signs they could provide were ones stating that snowmobiles are not allowed on county roads, per state statute.

On Tuesday, advocates for snowmobiling in Willow Creek made their case to Routt County Commissioners, who have the power to allow snowmobiling on county roads. The meeting was meant to discuss the issue, and no formal vote was taken.

“We’re just trying to go forward with the issue and see if we can get some of our snowmobiling rights,” Dillingham said.

Neighbors on both sides of the issue filled the commissioners meeting room.

Gary Spinuzzi, of Pueblo, has a second home in Willow Creek. He said that when he purchased his home in April, being able to snowmobile in the subdivision to access public lands was a big factor in his decision.

“The problems are way overstated,” Spinuzzi said. “If you took a census up there, we all have 3.2 snowmobiles per household.”

Dillingham presented a petition that indicated 93 of the 153 homeowners had signed in support of snowmobiling on subdivision roads.

Commissioner Nancy Sta­hoviak said a majority of homeowners was not enough for her to permit the use snowmobiles in the subdivision.

“I believe that if we have a residential neighborhood where there is not consensus among everyone. … I, as a commissioner, am not going to force it on the neighborhood,” said Stahoviak, citing safety issues and the county’s historical stance against allowing snowmobiles on county roads. “Unless the Willow Creek subdivision can come together as a group and create a proposal that everyone accepts, there is no way I can move forward with allowing snowmobiles on the road.”

Commissioners Doug Monger and Diane Mitsch Bush echoed Stahoviak’s opinion.

“We have been championed to try to help (with) safety and welfare, and we don’t believe that is in the best interest of that,” Monger said. “There is the potential for the HOA to come up with some compromise plan.”

Despite the strong initial opposition from commissioners, Dillingham said snowmobile advocates won’t give up.

“It looks like we are going to chase this process down and fight this battle,” he said.