A proposal from billionaire Bill Koch to fund and install new guardrails along dangerous sections of Castle Creek Road isn’t getting a simple rubber stamp from Pitkin County.
In their first public hearing on the proposal Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to visit the road together, to invite county residents to join them, and to hold multiple public hearings on the idea.
Koch, who lives part-time at the former Elk Mountain Lodge near Ashcroft, has proposed to pay at least $300,000 to install 14 sections of guardrail on the country road, covering a total of about 6,500 feet.
The commissioners acknowledged the danger of steep drop-offs and winding curves there, and their obligation to keep the public safe. But they raised concern about degrading the scenery on the road, and about funding public works projects with private money from wealthy residents aiming to improve only their neighborhoods.
Commissioner Rachel Richards said the county and Koch should look at roads as a county-wide issue, and referred to the proposed private neighborhood funding as “the Balkanization of the county road system.”
“Do you have an unsafe road because you don’t have a billionaire in the backyard willing to pay for it?” she asked.
The county this year began aggressively investing in road improvements, but county hazard assessments have not identified guardrails as necessary on Castle Creek.
Koch started a nonprofit organization to fund the project, and was represented before the commissioners by Glenn Horn and Tom Newland.
The proposal was scaled back from its original scope, floated to the county and in a meeting with 40-some neighbors at Koch’s mansion last year. Koch’s consultants’ analysis originally found more than 12,000 feet of the road that posed a public safety threat and warranted guardrails.
They concentrated the guardrails in areas where they believe it’s most common for drivers to go off of the road.
“We got it down to what we thought was a reasonable amount of guardrail,” Newland said.
Several neighbors came to the hearing, and voiced varied levels of support.
John Wilcox, longtime owner of the Pine Creek Cookhouse and Ashcroft Ski Touring, told the commissioners he supported the guardrail initiative. He said he’s been lobbying the county to add guardrails to sections of the road for 25 years.
“You’ve got a gift horse,” he said. “You’re looking him in the mouth. ... If one life is saved, then it’s all been worth it.”
Longtime Castle Creek resident Bob Rafelson, meanwhile, stressed the importance of protecting the scenic views on the road. He suggested the county should phase in the installation of the railings. If drivers obey speed limits, he said, the road is not terribly dangerous.
“This is a rural, scenic road,” he said. “I would like to sustain it.”
Commissioner Jack Hatfield also expressed interest in using less visually-obtrusive safety guards, like steel cables. He said he dislikes the way that guardrails have changed the character of Brush Creek Road in Snowmass Village.