An issue that began with biting comments and a packed room of angry community members was decided Tuesday with a sigh of relief and a round of applause.
The La Plata County Board of County Commissioners approved a seasonal-use permit for Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s proposed dinosaur train. And in stark contrast to last week’s neighborhood-compatibility meeting, most of the audience appeared to support of the idea.
Much of the change in opinion was spurred by the railroad’s decision to limit its request for a seasonal-use permit to three days this year, instead of four months. Residents also lauded D&SNG owner Al Harper’s appearance at the meeting to address community concerns and give more detail about the proposed event.
The dinosaur or “dino” train is the railroad’s newest event based on “Dinosaur Train,” a popular cartoon series that airs on PBS Kids. The coal-fired steam engine will travel to the railroad’s theme park located about three miles north of Durango in the Animas Valley. There, customers will mingle among blow-up dinosaurs, and visit archaeological dig activities, food vendors, a temporary tattoo parlor and an inflatable bouncy house.
Initially, the train’s permit application requested use from May through August, drawing sharp criticism from nearby landowners worried that much leeway would allow the train to operate multiple weekends during the summer. But the newest version of the proposal requests permission to operate only June 15-17, 2012.
The railroad will reapply for another land-use permit next year if this summer’s operations go well, Harper said.
The revised proposal, coupled with Harper’s speech, caused several audience attendees to change their minds about the issue.
“I came in opposed to this whole idea because I had bought into the idea it would be something of a carnival,” local resident Ann Flatten said. “I’ve changed my mind. In view of everything (Harper) has done for this community, we ought to give him a chance to try this. ... If it works fine, if it doesn’t we can revisit it next year.”
Harper framed events like the dino train as the D&SNG’s lifeline into the future.
“I promise I will never stop looking at new ideas, new ways to operate, new potential events and new things I can do with the railroad because that is the only way I can ensure this great American treasure and its regular historic runs will be here for generations to come,” Harper said.
He promised the audience the dino train would never operate more than nine days per summer and assured residents concerned about pollution that the trains would not idle at the theme park. Trains will drop off their passengers then travel back to the train depot to pick up the next group of visitors, Harper said.
Still, some people expressed lingering concerns about the appropriateness of the dinosaur theme in the Animas Valley.
“The dinos disappeared 50 million years ago,” said Pat Hartman, an Animas Valley resident. “This community has a heritage of wildlife in that valley, and I would love to see you educate children about what we have today.”
Commissioners congratulated community members and railroad representatives for meeting each other half way.
“Today’s hearing was refreshing given the tone and tenor of politics locally and everywhere else today. This was an example of how the system works. I want to thank Mr. Harper for being open and responsive to the public concerns and adjusting appropriately,” Commissioner Bobby Lieb said. “Nothing works like trial and error.”
For his part, Harper said next time he will attend the neighborhood meetings to clarify questions and allay community concerns early in the process.
“It’s a lesson learned on my part,” he said.