Riverfront greenway in Colorado: great place to play; just keep on the straight and narrow.

The Roaring Fork River in central Colorado offers a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly riverfront greenway on one side of its banks…exactly as one might hope from a waterway with such an roaringly evocative name.  Or, rather, that City of Glenwood Springs has provided this greenway, which is, again, exactly what one might expect from a pristine resort town.  And nobody who simply passes through Glenwood Springs could form any other conclusion.  Although little-known in comparison to winter sport havens like Aspen or Breckinridge, or even Crested Butte that I’ve featured previously,

Glenwood Springs can boast a number of prestigious rankings, from 10 best small towns in America using a livability metric, among the 20 richest small towns (per Bloomberg), and Outside magazine’s best small towns.  Perhaps Glenwood Springs is comparatively obscure because it doesn’t enjoy the lucre of a ski resort; though nestled in the mountains and Aspen is less than an hour away, Glenwood Springs is first and foremost a river town, the confluence of Roaring Fork and Colorado.  And the riverfront greenway in the featured photo above helps link the vacation and rental homes on the outskirts of town with its picturesque main street, the famed 130-year-old Hotel Colorado, capitalizing on the localized geothermal activity that originally drew vacationers to nearby hot springs.

Private homes along the riverfront greenway in Glenwood Springs CO

With a water park at the Hotel Colorado and a nearby gondola ride up to a miniature amusement park, Glenwood Springs derives most of its recreational luster during the summer months—a sharp contrast from many other neighboring Colorado towns.  And with plenty of glitzier offerings in the area, the simple riverfront greenway in these photos is more of a peripheral attraction.  But it offers a picturesque stroll (or run or bike ride), linking one of the town’s two vehicular bridges over the Roaring Fork River down toward the southern purlieus, near the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport (GWS).  More importantly, it provides subtle signals of just how deliberate of an effort this riverfront greenway really was.  As this photo indicates, the greenway trail sits alongside the river in a modest valley, where the back yard of the home to the right is a greater distance from the path longitudinally than laterally.  To climb that hillside, steps are necessary.   Prime real estate for a vacation home in this fun little city, and, thanks to its superior elevation, probably gets a much better view across the Roaring Fork River than this one taken from the trail:

Views are the primary selling point in this part of Glenwood Springs, because the homes near this riverfront greenway sit perched on a slope.  There’s nothing much in the way of a yard, even if the property belongs to the owners of these single-family detached homes.  Even more puzzling, particularly to those who partly define American freedom by the capacity to own and control large plots of land, is the fact that these properties have a greenway trail running through them; completely strangers can roam freely through their back yards, and the homeowners can do nothing, even if their ownership title indicates that the properties boundary extends right to the banks of the Roaring Fork.

But it’s not quite the forfeiture of a First Amendment Right that it might seem.  And here’s the subtle indicator:

No trespassing outside of the Riverfront greenway in Glenwood Springs CO

See it?  It’s a tiny little sign on the far right of the image.

“Please Respect – Private Property Boundary”.  Most people would reasonably come to this conclusion, given that, throughout the length of this riverfront greenway, various steep slopes link the path to the back patios of people’s homes, some of them with a precarious flight of steps.  But the same little intermittent signs stand on the other side of the path as well. There it is, about two feet from the right edge of the trail.

Riverfront greenway in Glenwood Springs CO

And no, I didn’t simply turn 180° to get that sign on the right.  This time it’s there on the side of the riverfront greenway closest to the bank of the Roaring Fork—opposite the slope where the homes capitalize on the breathtaking views.

What this riverfront greenway offers (as many do) is a legal concept that is simple in its execution if much byzantine in its full legal ramifications.  It’s another easement.  I’ve featured easements multiple times, often to explore their operations with high-tension wires for massive electric lines that run through people’s back yards.  Or back alleys that double as stormwater management.  In these as in most cases, an easement creates a legally defensible exception to the typical exclusivity of privately owned real property.  The urban planning educational forum site Planetizen incidentally offered a more elaborate definition of an easement just a few days ago.  As the site articulates, the easement allows others—perhaps an institution, a private company, or the general public—to use or travel across a piece of private property for specific purposes.  My two utility easement articles (hyperlinked above) feature examples where the utility companies owning these high-tension wires must intermittently walk through people’s back yards to inspect or maintain the power lines or the land around them.  There’s no other option but to stretch them across numerous private properties.

Accessibility is a fundamental feature embedded in the legal prescriptions for many easements, especially when the servient estate (the property owner) has legal title to land that precludes the dominant estate from any reasonable access to a public right of way for basic navigation.  If that configuration sounds strange, it’s important to recognize that some landowners, especially in lightly regulated rural areas, may subdivide their large property to sell part to another prospective homeowner, but they can partition it off so that the child parcel lacks any way of getting to the primary right-of-way except through a drive way that runs through land belong to parent parcel (the servient estate).

The riverfront greenway in Glenwood Springs, like many of its kind, ensures some usufructuary capability to the scenic riverfront lands abutting the Rolling Fork.  People can enjoy a riparian corridor that helps advance the city’s identity as a recreational hub, converting some of the most prominent natural features into linear parks.  As a result, this greenway trail operates as a pedestrian easement in much the same matter as a sidewalk, when it runs along the street in a property owner’s front yard.  In that case, the justification for a pedestrian easement is pedestrian safety and proximity to a right-of-way; it’s safer for pedestrians to walk in a space buffeted from vehicular traffic rather than directly in the shoulder of the road.  A legitimate public purpose.  Here, at Roaring Fork River, it achieves recreation, conservation, and appreciation of nature.  Visitors can walk or jog or bike or rollerblade or unicycle along the paved pedestrian greenway, but they cannot venture off the path or they are trespassing.  The sidewalk is the physical and empirical manifestation of the easement.

The presence of this path, that essentially runs through many homeowner’s valuable back yards (prime real estate thanks to those breathtaking Rocky Mountain vistas), does beg an obvious question: how did the City of Glenwood Springs convince homeowners to sacrifice that ribbon of land?  After all, front yard sidewalks are defensible because they promote public safety; the argument for back yard greenways (recreation and nature access) is less defensible. Local media outlets suggest that a majority of constituents in the small city have valued the protection of riparian corridors; a 2020 update to the riparian setback ordinance protects native vegetation within 20% of a 35-foot setback from the river’s edge, precluding property owners from building permanent structures or desecrating the naturally occurring plant life.  Such an ordinance undoubtedly encourages good stewardship of the land, preservation of scenic beauty and reduction of the likelihood of invasive construction activity that could impair water quality.  But it doesn’t articulate anything about building a paved riverfront greenway for visitors to jog in what otherwise is people’s back yards.

Riverfront greenway in Glenwood Springs CO

I’m not entirely certain how Glenwood Springs mustered support for the pedestrian easement visible in these photos.  The signage no doubt helps sweeten the deal; it ensures that pedestrians know that stepping off the path is tantamount to trespassing and could get them in trouble.  But could other tools exist that incentivized homeowners to give up these back yards?  The City could have invoked the eminent domain clause in the First Amendment, purchasing the pedestrian easement that grants the right for limited public access to otherwise public property, as long as they stay on the straight and narrow.  If the City offers just compensation (the value of a ribbon of land), the eminent domain proceeding cannot constitute an unlawful taking of property, and a the City achieves a broader public purpose of recreation and enhanced nature appreciation with the stroke of a pen.

Some locals no doubt prefer the exclusivity, and if they really want it, they can always consider purchasing land on the opposite bank of the Roaring Fork River, where no such riverfront greenway exists.  Additionally, not all properties extend right to the water; a few subdivisions further to the southeast seem to have design subdivision plats so that a “buffer zone” exists between the homes’ back yards and the rivers banks.  Regardless, if a person chooses to move, to retire, or to “summer” in Glenwood Springs, chances are he or she knows that part of the package deal is a place that’s inviting for joggers, bicyclists, rollerbladers (do those still exist?) and swimmers, and hot springs bathers, fly fishers, and gondola riders.  Or, travel 30 miles in any direction, a mecca for skiers and snowboarders.  And for the more sedentary among us, they can just stroll along the Roaring Fork River, admiring the breathtaking views.

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8 thoughts on “Riverfront greenway in Colorado: great place to play; just keep on the straight and narrow.

            1. AmericanDirt Post author

              I’ll admit sometimes my love of the mundane just gets the best of me. A thorough analysis where the final result is, “Yeah, okay, got it.” The images speak for themselves. I guess the only thing that really stands out is those tiny little signs: I’ve never seen a place that makes it obvious that “Thou shalt not leave the trail”. But that’s really how quite a few greenway trails work, either riverfront or those that trace property lines. Stay on the sidewalk; don’t go into the greenery. Really not much different from a sidewalk that hugs the street in a person’s front yard.

              Reply
  1. Alex Pline

    Do you know the timing of the trail and the construction of the houses or general subdivision? Given the long standing “outdoorsiness” of Colorado I can speculate that the easement was a condition of the development. While the trail may only have been constructed way after the houses (it looks quite new – maybe it was just recently reconstructed) I bet the easement is as old as the development around it. I also wonder if Colorado has something in state law about public access to rivers that required that easement? Personally, I’m a huge fan of not privatizing access to this kind of amenity. I wish all governments would do this. In Annapolis we are having huge fights over water access in places like street ends or coves because many years ago, no one gave two craps about it so much was privatized officially or by proxy.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good points. I’m pretty sure Colorado has some of the most sophisticated conservation/pedestrian easement hybrids that are available. Most of the homes in this part of town looked no older than the 1980s, but I might not be a good judge–it’s easier for me to gauge age of housing when I’m well familiar with the regional vernacular. And, as far as Colorado goes, I’m not. (Vacation homes probably age a bit more quickly than others.)

      With a few extra minutes of research on the topic, I was able to dredge up a passage from Yale Law Review. It looks fairly old, so it may no longer be applicable, and in fact it appears to be hypothetical but “outdoorish” places like Colorado don’t usually retreat on their environmental legislation, so some permutation of this legislation is likely to have passed. At any rate, this Yale Law Review article references The Colorado Doctrine of Riparian Rights: “[it] may be summed up in the statement that riparian proprietors, as such, have no rights; that is to say, they have no usufruct of the waters flowing in the natural streams, not enjoyed by others whose estates are non-riparian”. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://openyls.law.yale.edu/bitstream/handle/20.500.13051/15348/13_8YaleLJ71_October1898_June1899_.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

      If such a passage has achieved codification in Colorado, it would set a precedent for exactly what you describe, and certainly abet the construction of a riverfront greenway trail like the one in Glenwood Springs, even if the trail postdates the construction of the riparian estates.

      As an added bonus, I now have “usufruct” twice in the same blog, which has to be worth something.

      Reply

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