Colorado village stranded by floods, bureaucracy, stubborn landowner

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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A Colorado mountain community has been cut off from critical supplies like food and medicine by a strange combination of floodwaters, governmental bureaucracy and a landowner who is unusually strict about private property rights.

The community of about 400 people sits atop Storm Mountain in Larimer County. Although devastating floods wiped out other residential areas in recent days, homes on Storm Mountain weren’t damaged. But the flooding destroyed the access roads, leaving residents with no way off the mountain but via a rugged four-wheel-drive Forest Service road.

Unfortunately, the road crosses property leased by a woman who initially refused to let anyone pass through a locked gate blocking access, according to resident Andy Hitch. Over the weekend, Hitch rode a dirt bike up a narrow, disused trail to check on family and friends who live in the area, and descended along the Forest Service road in search of an easier way for trucks and other vehicles to get off the mountain for supplies.

Many who live on the mountaintop had already begun using shovels to improve the Forest Service road, anticipating that it would be the only route to and from their homes for some time, he said.

But that hope ended when Hitch encountered the homeowner at the bottom, who refused to let him or anyone else travel across her property up or down the mountain.

“There is a mountain community, 400+ strong, stranded,” he wrote in a Facebook post that quickly went viral. “All roads off this mountain have been obliterated by the floodwaters. However, there is one way down. … [But] at the very bottom of the road there is a woman who leases land from the government. She is the ‘gate keeper’ and has decided to keep it locked. In her words: ‘those people choose to live up there, they can figure out some other way on and off that mountain.’”

Hitch claimed in his post that the woman, later identified by the Fort Collins Coloradoan as Marilyn Dion, pulled the same stunt during a wildfire in 2000.

“People at the bottom actually had to break the gate down so residents, literally racing down the hill with fire on their tail, could flee the danger,” he wrote.

Hitch begged his way thought the gate and complained about her to Larimer County Sheriff’s deputies and National Guardsmen who were manning a nearby roadblock. After being contacted by deputies, Dion has since agreed to allow anyone coming off the mountain to pass through her gate.

But she won’t let anyone return to deliver supplies — and law enforcement is backing her up.

“That’s her property, and she has the right to do what she wants to do,” a sheriff’s spokesman told the Coloradoan.

“Larimer County, Larimer County Sheriff’s Department, Division of Wildlife, National Forest Service, all are now backing this lady up and keeping that gate locked,” Hitch told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“Their homes are in perfectly good shape up there,” he said. “The problem is that [some of those who were evacuated] were evacuated with the idea that ‘yeah, we’ll get down to where there are some supplies for a few days and we’ll be able to get back home.’ That’s not the case any more.”

People must now decide whether to abandon their homes when they run out of necessities, or try to survive until the main access roads are repaired. Hitch said he was told those repairs could take up to a year.

Because of the negative publicity Hitch’s Facebook post generated — both for the obstinate landowner and the Sheriff’s Office for backing her up — Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith has been trying to find a solution, spokesman John Schultz told TheDCNF.

“It’s not a resolved situation yet,” he said, declining to comment further.

But another bureaucratic hurdle was recently added — on Monday, the U.S. Forest Service banned all non-emergency personnel from Forest Service land in Larimer and Boulder counties, under threat of a Class B misdemeanor. The purpose, according to the bulletin, “is to protect public health and safety.”

Dion could not be reached for comment.

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