Developers lose court battle over ski village |

Developers lose court battle over ski village

P. Solomon Banda
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Developers proposing a massive village at the base of a remote and rustic ski area suffered another setback Thursday when the state appeals court upheld a ruling that voided county approval of the project.

Two environmental groups and the operators of the Wolf Creek ski area in the southwestern corner of the state had accused the county of being a rubber stamp for Texas billionaire developer Bill Joe “Red” McCombs.

A lower court had ruled that Mineral County had not followed a state law requiring year-round access for wheeled vehicles. Wolf Creek uses a single dirt road that leads to the property and is covered by up to 10 feet of snow in the winter.

The ruling forces developer Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture to go back to seek reapproval for its development on its 287.5 acres of private land within the Rio Grande National Forest.

“This is a huge victory,” said Ryan Bidwell, executive director of Durango-based Colorado Wild, one of the groups that challenged the approval. “It’s back to ground zero on the project. They now have huge hurdles in front of them to get this project off the ground.”

The appeals court rejected other issues raised by the environmental groups, including water and scenic views, saying they could resurface later but are moot for now because the county approval was overturned.

Bob Honts, president of the development company, said the appellate court’s ruling allows it to continue planning.

“As with everything in life, this is a mixed bag,” Honts said. “This lawsuit is not about, ‘Is there going to be a village?’ It’s about the process. We’re just patiently observing due process.”

The U.S. Forest Service had approved construction on two roads the developer needs for access to the land, but that approval is entangled in a separate lawsuit filed by the same groups ” Colorado Wild and the Alamosa-based San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

“We are relieved,” said Chris Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “When it went though the process, the binder [commissioners] received was about 5 inches high and they had about 30 days to look it over. … The decision was made very quickly.”

Messages for county officials weren’t immediately returned.

A separate lawsuit by the Pitcher family, which operates the ski area, is also pending.

The ski area was once a partner in the Village at Wolf Creek development but withdrew, and the lawsuit seeks to clarify the family’s obligations. The developers say the ski area owes them at least $20 million for allegedly reneging on an agreement to extend a road from the ski area to the development site.

The $1 billion development would include 222,100 square feet of commercial space, hotels, and homes for up to 10,500 people.

Supporters say the development will generate hundreds of new jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for the economically depressed area. Opponents contend it will destroy wetlands, harm water quality, endanger lynx and strain government services.

Critics have also accused McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications, of wielding his political influence in Congress, where he unsuccessfully tried to get approval of the ski village attached to unrelated legislation.