Eldorado Springs residents fear for safety, tiny community’s identity

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part story about plans that Eldorado Artesian Springs Inc. has for the tiny foothills community and the concerns that Eldorado Springs residents have for their future.

Those who live in historic Eldorado Springs think of it as “a little paradise.” A hidden gem nestled in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. And perhaps, too, a relic of a bygone era.

“People come and stay,” said resident Cathy Proenza. “It says something.”

Seated at the mouth of a canyon that’s home to one of the most popular state parks in Colorado, the tiny community has an allure as unique as its geography. It began over a century ago as a summer resort, but today, although it has a population of only a few hundred people, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock there each year to enjoy its world-class rock climbing, hiking and fishing.

But there’s also threat of danger looming over the area. The canyon has seen devastation from floods and fires, and residents know it’s only a matter of time before another disaster strikes. If the area needs evacuation during an emergency, especially on a busy weekend day when the town is crowded with park visitors, the narrow, historic roads running through town could cause traffic to bottleneck and create a safety hazard. A fire department official has said the roads can’t be expanded without encroaching on existing property lines.

On top of these risks, a private company that owns much of the town’s infrastructure and property has embarked on a years-long campaign to restore the old resort to its former glory, and residents fear the ongoing project — and the changes to come once the project is finished — could worsen the existing dangers.

In an email to the Daily Camera, several residents summed up their feelings about the project with a subject line hinting that Eldorado Springs is going “from paradise to parking lot.”

Eldorado Artesian Springs Inc., the bottled water company, owns the remnants of the resort, the roads and bridges, a handful of real estate assets and more in Eldorado Springs. The company is in the process of renovating the resort pool and ballroom, but residents worry about current construction and newly refurbished amenities in town clogging the already-narrow roadways with extra vehicles and traffic.

In a larger town or city, an increase in traffic might be little more than a nuisance. But in Eldorado Springs, where residents and visitors are forced to enter and exit town via a narrow dirt road, a traffic jam or road blockage during an emergency evacuation could prove deadly.

Furious and frightened residents have voiced these concerns to Boulder County officials, but the county, having already approved the permits for EASI’s resort renovation project in 2018, said it’s powerless to do much about the situation.

Living in and visiting Eldorado Springs may carry inherent risks, but a history of private ownership and lack of local governance has also left the town vulnerable to the ambitions of a private interest. Residents worry about the future of their town, and many feel they have few options for addressing their fears.

‘I fully expect to burn alive in my house’

Eldorado Springs is less a proper town than it is a residential area. There are no restaurants, no schools and few businesses. Located in unincorporated Boulder County, the community lacks its own local governance, police or fire department. It relies on the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement and on Mountain View Fire Protection District for fire services.

The two main roads, Eldorado Springs Drive and Artesian Drive, run along either side of South Boulder Creek and are connected by two bridges. Both roads — and the smaller roads that stem from them — are unpaved, riddled with potholes and, according to residents, haven’t been improved in years. Eldorado Springs Drive is wide enough in parts for two vehicles to pass but too narrow for them to pass in other areas. Artesian Drive is largely a single-lane road.

On a walk through town where residents showed a Daily Camera reporter some of their areas of concern, resident Janet Robinson called the one-lane bridge on the east side of town, a key egress point for residents on the north side of the creek to use in an evacuation, a potential “death clog.”

Mountain View Deputy Fire Marshal Michelle Kelly said while the roads are wide enough for fire engines to pass through town, the width of the roads has “never been ideal.”

“Historically, lots of places (in the area), between residents and visitors, have required one-vehicle-at-a-time access,” Kelly said. “Those roads don’t meet what you would see elsewhere in the county for a two-lane road. Many of them are historic, very old roads that have never been wide enough for two lanes.”

Because the roads and bridges are privately owned by EASI, there’s little the county can do to improve the condition of the roads. But even if the county had that power, many residents’ property lines run up against the edges of the roads, so widening them would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. “You would have to buy properties and tear down houses to make the road wider,” Kelly said.

Since EASI was founded in 1983, the company and residents have shared what little infrastructure and space exists within the town. Residents said recent tensions between them and EASI started brewing after the company began applying for permits for an ambitious redevelopment project in 2018. The biggest goals of the project include renovating the old resort pool, refurbishing the old ballroom (which was converted into a water bottling facility) into a venue for weddings and other events, and designating more than 140 parking spaces on the town’s roads. The county gave EASI conditional approval for the project in 2018, and at the time of this writing, numerous open permits still remain for this work.

Construction has been ongoing for years. Cones and construction machinery are scattered throughout town. The west bridge, which serves as only one of two access points for residents who live along Artesian Drive and the north side of the creek, has been closed since November for construction. Residents were told it would reopen within weeks, but half a year later, there is still no firm opening date for the bridge. There is a gate across the bridge that residents say is locked at night. Those who live on the north side of the creek worry about being trapped in the event of an emergency evacuation.

EASI CEO and Co-Founder Doug Larson, who did not respond to multiple requests for a real-time interview and agreed to answer questions only via email, said the bridge is closed while the company “works through the final county requirements” and the work is being completed “as expeditiously as possible,” but the bridge still must meet safety standards. In the meantime, he said, Mountain View Fire Protection District has access over the bridge and through the construction gates and will be given access in an emergency.

Deputy Fire Marshal Kelly corroborated Larson’s statement, saying the closure of the bridge is temporary, and the fire department can use it in an emergency. She said the bridge needs to be replaced as part of the ballroom construction because the old one had damage from the 2013 flood and was starting to fail. The bridge also needs to meet county standards with the increased volume of people in town that’s expected after the renovations are done.

Increased crowds are part of what residents fear most. They are partly worried about noise and disruptions from rowdy events, especially once the old ballroom space has been converted into a venue. But they’re also concerned about the increased traffic and congestion such events could bring to the roads, which could create a safety hazard for everyone in town if disaster were to strike.

As part of the renovations, Boulder County required EASI to submit a parking plan showing where vehicles visiting any of the company’s facilities will park. The plan shows 115 parking spaces designated for EASI employees and only 26 spaces designated for the town’s residents. Residents say the plan was not an engineered drawing but an architectural rendering that appeared to include no specific measurements and no mechanism for ensuring the roads would remain a safe width. Mary Smith, who lives in town, said she felt there was “a little bit of fiction” in the parking plan.

At an April 17 meeting between residents and county officials, residents demanded to know why the county approved this parking plan, particularly with so many people anticipated to use the roads.

“What happens on Saturday morning is that there’s 130 cars parked here, there’s 100 patrons in the state park and then there’s the residents, as well,” resident Richard Luck said while giving a presentation at the meeting. “In the case of a fire or some evacuation … it’s going to be a bottleneck.”

The threat of fire looms especially large for some after the Marshall Fire tore through the nearby area 18 months ago. “I fully expect to burn alive in my house,” local resident Robinson told the Daily Camera. “I’m really scared.”

At the April meeting, Boulder County officials told homeowners that while they heard the concerns being expressed, there was little they could do to intervene because permits had already been approved.

“From the county’s perspective, (the permits are) how EASI is being held accountable,” said Summer Frederick, planning division manager with Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting. Frederick also said EASI had approval for the project and was in compliance at that point in time.

For many residents, though, the combined effect of the permits seemed worse than the effect any one of them individually might have. “The county issued permits without thinking about how they all interface,” resident Tod Smith said.

Frederick told the Daily Camera the pool complex renovations were approved as a Use of Community Significance, and EASI would be required to make improvements on the roads as a condition of that approval, but she did not directly answer questions about how it was determined that this project would not impact residents’ safety and well-being.

When asked for comment on EASI’s renovation project, Larson said there will be “no additional or new parking spaces” beyond the number of parking spaces historically used by the resort, although he said current road and parking plans were “undergoing additional changes requested by the county.”

He also disagreed with residents’ suggestion that the renovated event venue in the old ballroom space could bring large numbers of people to town.

“Our company has owned and operated the resort for forty years,” Larson wrote in an email. “In that time, and throughout its history, there has been a variety of uses and events at the resort. EAS is not building a new event venue but rather renovating and improving an existing facility. The renovated ballroom will have less capacity than the swimming pool. So, the concerns of the parking associated with the events in the ballroom appear unfounded.” And furthermore, he said, the Boulder County Commissioners placed parking and traffic restrictions on the resort’s operations.

Asked how the parking and traffic restrictions would be enforced, Larson said, “Eldorado will do its best to provide parking information and signage to the public to ensure that parking is for resort use only, as intended. The county will also play a role in parking enforcement.”

Larson did not answer a Daily Camera reporter’s question about exactly how many people he expected the venue would hold, but he said events had been held in the ballroom space as recently as 2021.

“That the residents are apparently unaware of the use of the ballroom … demonstrates that the events that were held did not add appreciable traffic to the area. The renovated ballroom is expected to operate in a similar manner as in the past,” he said.

He added that prior to the pandemic, the company had a “long tradition of hosting charitable events, weddings and other non-company events.” Larson also noted Eldorado Canyon State Park closes at sundown, the pool typically closes at 6 p.m., and most ballroom events will likely be held after the pool is closed.

Sara Distin, who lives in town, disagreed with Larson’s characterization of the events hosted in town. She said the community knows of several EASI holiday parties and other events for employees, and she is aware of noise complaints from those events, but that the space hasn’t been publicly marketed as an event space “in recent history.”

Still, Larson denied wrongdoing on the company’s part and emphasized his belief the primary danger in town comes not from his company’s activities, but from the neighboring state park.

“Overall, the road improvements, number of parking spaces and resort renovations will restore an historic, community amenity while also improving safety and access to the area for residents, users of the State Park as well as those accessing the resort,” Larson wrote.

“The County and Eldorado went through an extensive, arduous public review process before the permits were issued to ensure that Eldorado would mitigate the impact of the renovations to the greatest extent possible. And Eldorado believes its plans do that. But more importantly, not only has Eldorado not engaged in any wrongdoing, it has bent over backwards to remedy a situation that is largely attributed to the heavy state park usage, and which is entirely unrelated to the resort.”

Monday: How Eldorado Springs’ history set the stage for today’s challenges.

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