Dream home versus heavy ordnance
Ouray - A really big gun is shooting down plans for a home on rugged Red Mountain Pass.
The house that Texan Jim Siegmann wants to build along one of the most avalanche-prone stretches of highway in North America has been turned down by Ouray County, officially because it would be "a substantial impairment to the public good."
Translation: The home would sit under the line of fire of a 3,000-pound howitzer used to shoot snow and prevent uncontrolled avalanches.
Mountain homes are often nixed for more common reasons, such as impacts on view and wildlife or danger from wildfires and rock slides.
But state and county officials say the howitzer/home issue could become more troublesome as growth spreads higher into Colorado's high country.
The problem hadn't come up before on a corkscrew stretch of U.S. 550 known for its nerve-racking, sheer dropoffs, 101 avalanche paths and average of 250 inches of snow each winter. No one else has asked to build there.
So for three decades, the state Transportation Department has been blasting away to trigger small, controlled avalanches from several metal-lined concrete firing boxes with clear shots at some of the worst spots.
One of those aims Army-issued, shrapnel-filled anti-personnel rounds at the deadly East Riverside Slide from the Bear Creek Falls pullout. It's a couple hundred yards above where Siegmann owns a 5-acre mining claim and has dreams of living.
"A structure there could really complicate our efforts. We would probably blow the windows out," said Paul DeJulio, a maintenance supervisor with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Siegmann said the howitzer hasn't scared him off. He has offered to vacate the structure when the gun is going to be fired. Highway workers who close the road could also warn the Siegmanns to leave, he said.
"I think there are many avenues to be pursued on this avalanche issue," Siegmann said. "To me, there is a private-property issue here. The state is creating a hazard by firing over my personal property."
But state and county officials contend Siegmann would be creating a hardship for others: If the Riverside Slide, which has trapped and killed six people since 1963, isn't prevented from starting avalanches regularly, U.S. 550 would have to be closed more often.
The highway is the lifeline for the town of Silverton and a major commerce route in southwestern Colorado.
Highway workers rely heavily on U.S. Army howitzers to start controlled avalanches on many passes, and that's another consideration. If CDOT doesn't follow all the Army rules - including not firing over occupied structures outside of war zones - DeJulio said, the big guns could be taken away.
"If something happened, we'd be out of business with our howitzers," he said.
Siegmann said Army regulations allow the highway department to fire over his proposed home if the state assumes liability.
"We're not willing to do that," DeJulio said.
Not ready to give up
Siegmann, a geologist who wants to live year-round on Red Mountain, said he's not ready to give up. He is considering selling or swapping the property but at the same time is looking at correcting two other zoning problems - a setback to shield the home from the highway and having a reserve water supply for firefighting. He said he also believes he can prevail on the howitzer.
CDOT spokeswoman Stacy Stegman said the department has been watching parcels of land for sale in avalanche areas on other Colorado passes, such as Berthoud and Loveland. Realtors are warned about the possibility of howitzer/home dangers.
"That danger is what has shocked people," said former Ouray County Commissioner Alan Staehle. "It would be crazy to have a house you shoot over."
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