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Debate ignites over town of Silverton’s plans to construct homes and road over wetlands

As of 2021, the area is no longer protected by Army Corps of Engineers
“Wetlands serve as a keystone habitat. They support larger amounts of biodiversity and other habitats, and if you have negative impacts to that habitat, you negatively impact surrounding systems,” said Fort Lewis professor Jake Kurzweil on Monday night. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Several residents pleaded for the preservation of wetlands that may be threatened by the construction of a road and new homes at a meeting Monday in Silverton.

Resident Jackie Kerwin, along with many other townspeople in attendance, asked Silverton’s Board of Trustees to pause plans for a housing development until the wetlands issue can be sorted out.

“I would like to ask the Board of Trustees if they would consider putting a moratorium on building in the wetland districts,” said resident Jackie Kerwin, “until you have had time to review the town code and revise it.”

Another resident, Julian Roberts, appealed to the board with a list of facts about the wetlands.

“Colorado has only 2% wetland, and inside that, 75% of our natural wildlife and flora and fauna can be found in wetland habitats,” she said. “Even though this is a small section, it hosts a large demographic of our own natural resources, whether moose, elk, or other endangered or protected species.”

Resident Jake Kurzweil, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Environment and Sustainability, who holds a doctorate in Hydrologic Science and Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines, spoke to the board as an actual expert on the subject matter.

“It’s my opinion that protecting the wetlands is a very important thing to do,” Kurzweil said. “Wetlands serve as a keystone habitat. They support larger amounts of biodiversity and other habitats, and if you have negative impacts to that habitat, you negatively impact surrounding systems.”

Also a hydrologist and associate director of water programs at the Mountain Studies Institute, Kurzweil delivered a sobering fact to the board.

“Ninety percent of wetlands have been removed from the continental U.S. since 1900.”

Kurzweil also talked about the necessity to protect the wetlands within the Silverton town limits.

“Wetlands can reduce flash flooding,” he said. “They are economically viable for Silverton. They provide economic integrity. People come to this town to see our natural beauty, our wildlife. These are the areas that provide disproportionately higher amounts of wildlife. With possible decrease in federal protection for our wetlands, Silverton has a unique opportunity to protect our wetlands as a heavily mineralized watershed. Wetlands can also mitigate metal loadings and provide increased water quality.”

Brandon Gibson, a property owner and one of the applicants to build a new single-family residence within the watershed district, said he would be building on wetlands that are not subject to regulation by federal law.

“We’re not aiming to drain any wetlands or destroy any wetlands around here,” Gibson said. “The Army Corps of Engineers said this is non-jurisdictional wetlands. People are concerned that that’s only because they changed the rules in the last few years. I can confirm that’s not the case. Twenty years ago, this was wetland that drained into the Animas, but that no longer happens, either due to drought or road building. The National Wetlands Survey (Inventory) has not mentioned this area as a wetland.”

Kurzweil provided a counter Gibson’s remarks.

“We have defined this as a wetland, and when you’re building on top of it, you’re taking away when you're building on top of it, you are not just impacting that are, but the wetland as a whole,” Kurzweil said. “Plain and simple. Whether or not it’s jurisdictional. I’m your neighbor. I’m a scientist. I implore you to come and talk to me.”

Until 2021, the wetlands within the Silverton town limits were under the protection of the Army Corps of Engineers, the military agency responsible for environmental protection. Once it reassessed the wetlands and discovered they had disconnected from the Animas River, they redesignated the area as non-jurisdictional, opening up the possibility for land development.

Silverton resident Andrew DeWitt discussed the need for compromise between those wanting to protect the wetlands and those on the Planning Commission.

“I’m a sixth generation Silvertonian, and I’m here to support saving the wetlands,” said DeWitt, “but there has to be a middle ground. We’re not anti-development. We just want to protect our natural resources in town. Numerous wetland programs exist including Colorado Parks and Wildlife Wetlands Program. It’s a voluntary incentive-based program. With winter here, this community can take a step back and come together on a solution that will work for everyone.”

DeWitt’s grandmother, Sandy Campuzano, whose own home construction back in 2003 had to follow the Army Corps of Engineers strict building code near the wetlands, leaves the Silverton Board of Trustees with a solemn point to ponder. “Once destroyed, we cannot put the wetlands back together.”

At the end of the 4½-hour meeting, the board of trustees voted to table the discussion on the development of the houses and the road, until the members could get more information regarding the impact of the construction on the so-called wetlands.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here,” said Senior Community Planner Katie Kent.