By Brian Maass
JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4) – A proposed Catholic retreat and conference center in Jefferson County is facing scrutiny over neighbors’ concerns that the development would pose an imminent wildfire threat.
“We understand the neighbors have concerns,” said Catholic Archdiocese Vicar General Randy Dollins. “If I had made an investment in a home up there I would have similar concerns.”
Dollins talked to CBS4 about the proposed 241-acre facility the Archdiocese wants to build on property it bought in 2015 in Jefferson County. The church is trying to have the property rezoned so it can build a main lodge with 52 guest rooms, meeting and eating facilities along with a chapel, a dormitory-style youth retreat center and small cabins.
The Jefferson County planning commission approved the rezoning but now county commissioners must decide on the rezoning. Although some neighbors support the project, which is near the intersection of Highway 285 and South Elk Creek Road, many have spoken out against it like Gail Hite.
She lives in the adjacent Douglass Ranch subdivision and fears thousands of outside visitors a month would bring the potential for an accidental wildfire.
“This is going to magnify that fear. We can’t even grasp it at this point in time,” said Hite.
Hite said she believes that if a grass or forest fire started on the archdiocese property, it would spread to her subdivision within two minutes.
“For us this is life or death. We have one way in and one way out,” she said.
There is currently only one road that winds through the Douglass Ranch neighborhood and residents would need to evacuate along that road in case of a sudden fire.
Residents have a strong ally in their opposition to the church retreat: their local fire department.
The Elk Creek Fire Department, a volunteer organization, has called the area where the church wants to build its retreat “the highest fire risk area in the entire front range.”
Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McGlaughlin has said if a fire started on the retreat property would be “unstoppable… evacuation would be extremely difficult.”
Appearing before the Jefferson County Commissioners last month, McGlaughlin said, “The fire district is opposed to this in its entirety. We do not have the ability to protect this proposal. It is going to significantly impact the community in a negative way. I see this very much as a negative thing for the entire community.”
Fire Marshal Shelley Hunter wrote that the proposed retreat is “in a significant high fire risk area. Extreme measures would need to be taken to evacuate in case of a wildfire in this area which would exceed available resources for additional needs.”
Dollins said the fire chief’s comments “kind of caught us off guard. If anyone doesn’t want a fire it would be us. We would not want to see a fire happen up there.”
He said the Archdiocese would implement a forest mitigation plan to make the area “fire safe.” He added the buildings would be equipped with sprinklers and would comply with fire codes.
The Archdiocese’s last mountain retreat — St. Malo in Allenspark — burned down in 2011 due to an accidental fire.
The Jeffco facility would act as a replacement for St. Malo. Dollins said the church was attracted to this parcel of land due to its proximity to Denver, about a 45-minute drive, along with the peaceful setting and abundance of hiking trails.
But neighbors are spooked by the sheer number of potential visitors and the Archdiocese being allowed to eventually construct up to six outdoor fire pits.
“To me,” said Hite, ”it’s not if but when a cigarette or flaming marshmallow starts a fire. It would reach us in less than a minute.”
David Froman, another resident of Douglass Ranch, said since he has lived in the area, there have been five major wildfires in the vicinity scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and costing lives.
“The site of this development is in the epicenter of all the fire activity here in the last 20 years. I don’t know of any other development where the fire department has come out and said, ’This is a bad idea,’” said Froman.
Although he expressed understanding of the neighbors’ concerns, Dollins said it was just as likely lightning would start a fire as humans, “We’re committed to making this a reality but were not going to do it like bulldozers. We’re going to be neighbors for a long time with everyone up there.”
The Jefferson County Commissioners will ultimately decide whether or not the zoning should be changed to pave the way for the retreat and conference center.
– Visit CBSDenver.com’s Living With Wildfire section.
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