As the proposed Pilot Hill open space dream moves closer to reality, the Laramie City Council is considering what the infrastructure and access to the future open space will need to look like.
The council discussed their ideas and concerns about access to the land during a work session on Tuesday with two members of the Pilot Hill Project, staff member Sarah Brown Mathews and Co-Chair Tony Hoch.
To acquire the mostly-private land east of Laramie, the Pilot Hill Project is working with the Office of State Lands on a land exchange, where regional private landowners with state lands land-locked within their property are given the chance to buy the land-locked parcels, and the funds from the purchase would be used to buy Pilot Hill’s approximately 5,500 acres east of town.
Once the land swap has been finalized this fall, there will be a 60-day public comment period before it goes before the State Land and Investment Board in the spring.
Assuming it’s approved by the SLIB, the land would likely be managed by the state and will connect trails from city limits all the way to the Pole Mountain unit of Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
Not only a great potential area for open recreation space, but the land also has opportunities for wildlife protection, education system integration and could even be a potential economic driver for the city.
Development beyond trail systems would not be permitted on the land, and Hoch noted that will help avoid potential contamination of the Casper Aquifer below.
“This is ground zero vulnerability to development,” said Hoch, who also serves as the director for the Laramie Rivers Conservation District.
Although the Pilot Hill Project committees — consisting of various community, county, University of Wyoming and city members and stakeholders — no longer need to come up with $10.5 million to purchase the land outright, they still expect to need about $1.5 million to get infrastructure in place so it can be used, assuming the land exchange is approved.
“We are still trying to raise funds for initial infrastructure,” Hoch said. “We’re approaching a million dollars, which for Laramie in a year and a half is a pretty amazing fundraising endeavor.”
Hopeful to eventually create an endowment to help pay for the upkeep of the land, the Pilot Hill Project has been fundraising and has dozens of corporate and governmental sponsors, partners and supporters.
The initial infrastructure is no small feat, however. Mayor Joe Shumway pointed out the committee needs to think of things like litter, overnight camping, and more.
“I’m concerned about the description of restrooms because of the aquifer,” he added. “Not everyone is going to, once it becomes a state park, want to pay a fee so they’ll find all kinds of access to the area. … I want this to be something where it is well maintained, groomed and always an attractive part of the experience that people have in the area.”
A lot of the specifics on access locations, amenities, trail routes, wildlife corridors and more are still in the planning phase. The Pilot Hill Project hired SE Group, a consulting firm out of Frisco, Colorado, to help design the space.
One major challenge is finding a way to access the land from the city without disrupting local neighborhoods. The group has discussed areas near the Jacoby Golf Course, off northern portions of 45th Street and around Crow Street as possible facilities.
“We do know that the access sites are probably going to be the biggest challenge that we face, quite honestly,” Mathews said.
More than finding places for people to park and start on the trail, Mathews pointed out public awareness will also be needed as people use some unofficial access points, like a commonly-used one behind the Snowy Range Academy on Boulder Drive.
Currently, the city owns the rocky, makeshift parking lot behind the charter school, but the area between the city’s land and the potential pilot hill area will remain privately owned, even if the land swap is successful.
Assistant City Manager Todd Feezer told the Boomerang Wednesday afternoon the city is pursuing closing the makeshift parking lot behind the charter school, which will likely come into effect within the next few weeks.
The vehicle closure was initiated after the city found illegal dumping on the property, including furniture, concrete, green waste and other debris, Feezer said.
He added the city did a site-specific investigation on the property and found parking on the exposed shale is “not safe” for the aquifer or City Springs. Should it prove feasible, the city could pursue different protection measures, like lining the Spring Creek channel and developing a parking lot that could catch potential contaminants.
Even if a formal parking lot were to be developed, private land would still need to be crossed to get to the future Pilot Hill trails.
Access points don’t only affect locals. One of the big projected benefits to the open space is its potential draw to tourists looking to avoid crowds in Colorado at similar public land access areas.
Councilman Brian Harrington noted his concern that the primary access point needs to be “maximizing the economic benefits of Laramie” by bringing people beyond Pilot Hill to “businesses that are cycling dollars through our community.”
“I just want to make sure that’s at forefront of the conversation about access — maximum economic benefit with the least adverse effects to the residents of that specific area,” Harrington said.
The Pilot Hill Project has also gathered community feedback, hosting over 300 participants during public access days on the property this fall and also by conducting a survey last year, which saw 400 respondents.
Overwhelmingly, Hoch said, the public’s responses so far have shown an interest in the land as a space for outdoor recreation, including hiking, trail running and biking.
The group is still working out what allowing dogs would look like on the property, as well as other specifics, like whether trails will be separated by activity type and whether there will be seasonal wildlife closures in certain areas.
“We’re really trying to be collaborative and do a lot of brainstorming to figure out how can we do this in a way that works for people,” Mathews said.
Based on the projected timeline, the land could be available for public use as early as next summer.