La Plata County is looking into whether the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad violated any county codes after moving the bulk of its operations to the Rockwood station about 15 miles north of Durango.
Residents in the area have raised concerns about the D&SNG launching a majority of its trips out of Rockwood last summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the traffic, trash and fire danger residents say came with it.
After plans were announced that D&SNG would be running three trains a day out of Rockwood again this summer, residents called for a meeting with the county and railroad representatives.
At the meeting, which lasted 2½ hours Friday, residents repeatedly questioned county officials about why D&SNG did not have to apply for any permits or change its land-use after ramping up operations at Rockwood.
About 35 people attended in person, and another 20 or so tuned in online.
La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said when D&SNG wanted to run shorter trips out of Rockwood to Cascade, which allowed the railroad to run shorter trips at lower capacity, county officials thought it was temporary.
As a result, Stevens said D&SNG was not put under the regular county reviews.
“We did not expect it to roll over ... in 2021,” he said. “We could Monday morning quarterback it. ... Could the county have taken a different approach? I don’t know. We did what we did. If it was wrong, I will own that.”
Stevens said the county’s code enforcement department is reviewing D&SNG’s operation out of Rockwood for any potential code violations or if the railroad would need to apply for permits.
“Our job, our role, our responsibility ... is to apply our code in a fair and equitable manner, no matter the applicant,” Stevens said. “The train is not different.”
Stevens said he did not have a timeframe for when the county’s review would be completed, but he said he has made the matter a top priority for his staff members. Trains are expected to start running out of Rockwood for the summer season beginning May 1.
“It’s important we let due process run its course,” he said.
After the initial shutdown brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, D&SNG officials said it was not profitable to run the regular Durango-to-Silverton route under health regulations, which limited capacity at 50%.
Instead, D&SNG started offering shorter trips out of Rockwood to Cascade, about a two-hour round-trip ride.
The problem, several residents near Rockwood said Friday, is the increased crowds to the station have brought chaotic traffic, speeding, littering, trespassing and increased fire danger.
To access Rockwood, there is only one way in and out: County Road 200, a narrow, paved mountain road. At the height of the season last year, an estimated 300 cars were traveling to the station.
Many residents also pointed out D&SNG moved 80% of its operations to Rockwood, without any notification to residents or approval from the county.
“How did it come to be that one of the largest commercial employers in Southwest Colorado was able to move 80% of its business venture to a residential neighborhood without any oversight?” said John McAward, president of the Rockwood Estates Homeowners Association board of directors.
McAward said last year, D&SNG ran only five days a week. This year, the plan is to operate seven days a week.
Resident Arienne Aronson said the D&SNG’s move is “having an enormous impact on the residential neighborhood.”
“We did make this situation known as it unfolded,” she said. “We were basically silenced ... and told it was the pandemic and it was just going to be one season. ... I think what we ultimately were a little gullible.”
Aronson said she doesn’t want D&SNG to go out of business or for anyone to lose their jobs, but the impact to residents around Rockwood is untenable. She, too, said the railroad should have to go through a county process.
“The train decided they were going to do it, and they did it,” she said. “And they decided they’re going to do it permanently, it seems.”
Mike Sheehan, also a resident in the area, said the intersection of U.S. Highway 550 and County Road 200 has become dangerous with the increased traffic, calling it a “recipe for disaster.”
The path forward, or any potential solutions, remained unclear at the end of the meeting.
D&SNG officials seemed to indicate its operations at Rockwood are within the railroad’s rights of usage.
“We feel comfortable in doing what we were doing,” said Jeff Johnson, general manager.
John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, the parent company that owns D&SNG, said there is historical precedent for the railroad running trips out of Rockwood.
“We’re allowed to operate how we’re operating on our land, and that’s our understanding,” he said.
Brian Lange, who lives on County Road 200, responded, “You can justify the history all you want, but we’re dealing with it today. ... You’re screwing up our life.”
Johnson, however, said railroad officials don’t deny the impacts to Rockwood residents, and said it is something that needs to be addressed. Harper, too, asked the room if participants had any suggestions for potential solutions.
One person asked whether riders could be bused from Durango to Rockwood, but Harper said under current public health protocols, the D&SNG bus can take only 10 people at a time.
Another resident suggested running out of D&SNG’s property in the Animas Valley, where the Polar Express is located. Railroad officials said that would not be a marketable excursion for visitors.
After the meeting, Mary Muller-Ball, president of the Rockwood Village Homeowners Association board of directors, said residents felt heard.
“I feel like we made some headway and understand each other a little better,” she said. “But I think we have some work to do.”
As for next steps, Muller-Ball said residents will wait for the county’s review, as well as a separate review from the Colorado Department of Transportation about traffic impacts.
“We don’t have a lot of choice in the matter,” she said. “The train does what it wants to do. We just have to be safe, careful and hope nobody gets killed (in a traffic accident).”