By Mark Esper
Mountain Studies Institute unveiled plans Tuesday for a $3 million project to develop a 10-acre campus at the Silverton Lakes Campground at the north end of town as a field research station.
Jim Donovan, MSI’s new director of operations and finance, told the San Juan Regional Planning Commission Tuesday night that MSI hopes to purchase the campground from Outward Bound this winter. MSI has been leasing some facilities there the last two summers.
Donovan presented the planning commission with some conceptual drawings of the proposed campus.
“This is just an opportunity for MSI to get feedback and see if anything about the plans need to change,” said Town Planner Adam Sickmiller.
Planning commission member Ken Safranski noted that one of the major issues facing the project is the street grid. The town vacated the street rights-of-way in the campground area under a 99-year agreement. But if the site is no longer operated as a campground, those streets revert back to the town.
Donovan said MSI plans to allow long-term RV camping at the site for a couple years before phasing that out and converting the camping facilities to use by researchers and university groups.
Planning commission member Pete McKay noted the contribution MSI makes to the community. He also sits on MSI’s board of directors.
“About a million dollars a year or so is generated in visits — conferences, students and academics,” McKay said. And he questioned whether the street rights-of-way are of any value to the town given the wetlands they cross.
Donovan said the wetlands-saturated campground is remarkably well-suited for MSI’s mission.
“MSI is a unique buyer for this property,” Donovan said. “We put a lot of focus on wetlands research. This site has ponds, an iron fen. To us it’s a gold mine for people to do research.”
Donovan noted that MSI had considered purchasing the Avon Hotel a couple years ago.
“This is actually a much more appropriate place for MSI,” he said. “It’s really an ideal situation.”
Donovan said MSI envisions a 5-year project to build out the campus.
And Donovan said MSI would be glad to allow public access to the pond on the property that was historically the fishing pond for the town’s children.
Planning Commission Chairman Fritz Klinke suggested the town could enter into a new 99-year lease for the street rights-of-way throughout the campground, provided the site is used for educational purposes and meets other stipulations.
“I don’t think the public will be dis-served by continuing this concept,” Klinke said.
A public hearing at the planning commission’s Sept. 22 meeting is tentatively scheduled to begin review of a master plan for the site and to discuss conditions of the proposed lease of the rights-of-way.