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Larimer County Holds Discussion on Fee for Devil’s Backbone

September 28, 2018

Ross Livingston, a Loveland resident and member of the Loveland Open Lands Advisory Commission, gives his opinion about the possibility of charging a fee to use the Devil's Backbone Open Space Thursday during Open Lands Advisory Board meeting at Loveland city hall.

Proposed fees

• $9 daily vehicle entrance fee for Larimer County parks and open spaces. The current fee is $6 for open spaces and $7 for parks.

• Camping fees at county parks would generally increase between $3 and $10 per night depending upon the type of camping site and the season and day it is reserved.

• At Hermit Park, camping fee increases would range from $6 to $25.

• Annual passes would be $95 for Larimer County residents, a $20 increase, and $125 for non-residents, a $30 increase.

Ross Livingston does not support Larimer County charging a fee to access the Devil’s Backbone Open Space, while Gale Bernhardt has mixed feelings on the proposal.

Both Loveland residents, and both members of the city’s Open Lands Advisory Commission, spoke before the Larimer County Open Lands Advisory Board on Thursday — the first public discussion of a new proposal to, for the first time in 18 years, charge an entrance fee for the open space west of Loveland.

The county has proposed an increase in the fee for daily passes to parks and open spaces for 2019 that, if approved, would charge $9 per vehicle per day to help cover operational costs throughout parks and open spaces. The proposal, too, adds the Devil’s Backbone to that list of fee — no longer free — areas.

“Establishing a fee structure of any kind at the Devil’s Backbone trailhead will discourage people from using the Devil’s Backbone, and that is not acceptable to the Open Lands Advisory Commission,” said Livingston.

He pointed out that voters extended the open spaces sales tax starting in 2019 with a greater portion earmarked for Larimer County for operations, resulting in less going to Loveland.

“Now Larimer County wants to dip into our pocket every time we use the Devil’s Backbone Open Space,” he added, calling the fee “unnecessary” and “detrimental to the quality of life in Loveland.”

Gale Bernhardt, also on the board, spoke as resident who uses the Backbone several times a week. She said she understands the growing use of the trail resulting in the need for more maintenance and management and hopes the county will look at the big picture. That, she said, includes looking at users from out-of-county who flock to the Backbone’s trails without paying any support in taxes as well as the potential impacts of a fee driving people to other, free open space areas and “pushing the problem somewhere else.”

“I have mixed feelings about charging a fee structure at Devil’s Backbone,” Bernhardt said. “It needs to be looked at carefully. It’s an area that is very easy to love to death.”

She spoke of the tremendous use of the trails at the Backbone — an assertion that was backed up by numbers.

A presentation to the county advisory board from Denver-based Harvey Economics pointed out that the Backbone drew 67,936 visitors in 2014 and is projected to draw 100,480 next year when the fees would take effect.

Every day, even weekdays, the open space is busy, increasing the need for more rangers to patrol the full parking lots, diffuse conflicts with more users on the trails and answer medical calls, explained Chris Fleming, area manager for the Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ve doubled the size of the parking lot,” Fleming said. “It’s still full. There’s still a demand for more and more and more.”

Harvey Economics looked at the Devil’s Backbone as well as all other open spaces and parks in the county, at their use and capacity, their operating costs and their fees. Susan Walker presented the firm’s findings Thursday, saying her team determined a 30 percent increase in entrance and camping fees was necessary to close the gap between revenues and operating costs.

Both county parks and open lands operate with a mix of funding including revenues from fees, lottery proceeds, open space sales tax revenue and grants. The percentage covered by fees is much greater for parks — historically 85 percent to 90 percent — than for open spaces — about 25 percent.

However, as the areas reach capacity and operating costs continue to increase for personnel and maintenance, the amount covered by fees is predicted to shrink, so the county would like to close that gap with the proposed increase. The proposal also includes new revenue based on charging more for camping on weekends and holidays as well as adding a fee at the Devil’s Backbone.

The simple fee increases would bring in an extra $1.4 million in 2019, while the higher fees on weekends and holidays would add about $200,000 and a fee at the Devil’s Backbone, based on increasing use, would generate an estimated $500,000 in revenue. Operations at the Backbone cost $562,000 per year.

Members of the Larimer County Open Lands Advisory Board, after hearing the proposal, expressed a few different opinions.

Some said they believe people will understand the need for the increase as long as the county reaches out into the community with information and suggested an open house in Loveland. Others worried that charging a fee for the Backbone would essentially make it unaffordable for some residents.

The Larimer County Open Lands Advisory Board will vote next month on whether to recommend the increase to the Larimer County Commissioners, who will vote in December on the proposal. The commissioners also will consider from the Larimer County Parks Advisory Board, the Loveland Open Lands Advisory Commission and residents in their decision.

As Gary Buffington, director of the Larimer County Department Resources described, “This is just the beginning.”

Bernhardt added that she hopes it is just the beginning of “great discussion ... because only then can we find a great solution by being open and honest.”

Pamela Johnson: 970-699-5405, johnsonp@reporter-herald.com

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