After 40-year drought, Red Feather Lakes gets new commercial development

While construction and development proceeds at a feverish pace all along the Front Range, Red Feather Lakes has seen none of it. Until recently.

Roger Clark, an investor from Omaha with a seasonal home in Crystal Lakes, has achieved a feat by receiving the first occupancy permit for new commercial construction in the Red Feather area in perhaps 40 years. Actually, no one knows how long it has been — not even Larimer County building officials. It appears that the last such permit was for the construction of the Beaver Meadows Resort in the late 1960s, long before computers revolutionized county record keeping.

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The Red Feather area is immense, stretching from the Poudre Canyon north to the Wyoming border and from U.S. 287 west to the Jackson County line.

There has been other new construction and remodeling in the area, such as the immense Buddhist temple complex at Shambhala Mountain Center, and new construction at both the Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, but these are non-profit organizations subject to other rules and codes.

Clark is developing a small business park known as Sawmill Junction at the site of an old planing mill adjacent to the Red Feather Lakes Road and next door to Ponderosa Realty. Recently, he opened a self-storage facility and an automobile repair shop. Future plans call for a 5,000-square-foot building that might house a much-needed medical clinic, a branch bank, feed store, car wash and professional offices, such as a beauty shop or insurance office. He has plans to build this as a replica of the Durango railroad station.

For decades, the economy of the Red Feather area has depended primarily on the construction of summer homes and vacation cabins. Some tourist revenue comes from fishing, hunting and camping in the surrounding U.S. Forest Service lands. There are three Forest Service lakes nearby, but the famous lakes from which the village takes it name are privately owned and not available for public recreation.

The major employer in the area has recently been the Fox Acres Country Club, with its associated golf course, The course is now closed and the majority of unsold lots are now owned by a bank.

Because of the lack of employment and affordable housing for younger households, the village has had to fend off repeated attempts to close the local elementary school.

The village has suffered from a number of constraints on growth. One constraint on the local economy is the fact that the village sits a half mile off the main highway. Many visitors to the area come and go without knowing that the village exists, nor that rental cabins, grocery supplies and other services are nearby. County sign regulations have prevented business owners from advertising their presence to nearby motorists.

Increasingly restrictive Larimer County codes have much to do with fostering or curtailing the type of growth that could be financed by local money. Lucille Schmidt, a real estate broker with Ponderosa Realty, has watched many an attempt come and go over the last 40 years. “The rules stifle everything,” she says.

There may be some relief coming. Terry Gilbert, the newly appointed Community Development Director for Larimer County development issues, says that the county rules may be relaxed enough to allow two signs along the highway, with arrows pointing towards the village. He also notes that the county may relax some building and land use codes for the area. Gilbert has been holding rural outreach meetings in several small communities and plans to hold more this year to survey public opinion on such issues.

One major barrier to growth is the attitude of the majority of homeowners it the area. Census data shows that two thirds of the owners of homes and property in the village and surrounding subdivisions are absentee owners who use their property for summer homes and vacation cabins. In a 2005 survey conducted by local and county planners, some 65 percent of the residents indicated they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement “I would support new business and service development in Red Feather Lakes to serve area residents.” An almost identical percentage disagreed with the idea of building local water and sewer facilities and with paving local roads.

Water and sewer issues are also a constraint. Most of the wells in the area are dependent on inflows from the local lakes, and are subject to surface water contamination. And water supplies from the lakes are haunted by the possibility that downstream priorities might drain the lakes — and possibly wells — in times of drought.

A small water and sewage system serves the Fox Acres community and could possibly serve as a basis for a system serving a larger area, but it discharges into an intermittent stream bed which lacks sufficient dilution for a larger system.

Senior county planner Rob Helmick said a water and sewage system assessment could cost more than $100,000, with no local “hero” to provide the money. Helmick also noted there may be issues with obtaining sufficient water rights. “Without water,” he says, “there can’t be any real development.”

The fact that Red Feather Lakes is an unincorporated village means that it cannot apply for federal grants for water and sewer development and the village has no tax base whatsoever.

Still, there are some bright new signs of increasing economic activity. The local hardware store, which has often had to close while a new owner is found, has recently been purchased with plans to expand onto a nearby lot and become an Ace Hardware franchise. Points West Bank has indicated it might wish to open a branch office, and there is continued community interest in reopening a medical clinic.