Stalled Colorado ski village could get new life
September 5, 2009
DENVER – A proposed ski village in southwest Colorado that was besieged by lawsuits and then put on hold after federal officials agreed to redo an environmental review could be getting new life.
Developers behind the proposed resort at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area are exploring a possible land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service that would steer construction away from wetlands and ski runs. They’re also looking at scaling back the size of the development on the land owned by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications.
Developer Clint Jones of Austin, Texas, is meeting with Colorado elected officials, the Forest Service, environmentalists and area residents to gauge support for some of his ideas, which still need McCombs’ go-ahead. He and business partner Hal Jones – who isn’t related – took over the project for McCombs after the first environmental analysis was shelved.
McCombs’ former representative, Texas developer Bob Honts, had become a lightning rod for opponents who said the project was too big, would degrade the environment and tax the services of Mineral County, home to fewer than 1,000 people.
“We would certainly like to get support from the local communities,” Jones said Friday.
He appears to have won conditional support from Davey Pitcher, president of the Wolf Creek ski area, which he manages on national forest land about 250 miles southwest of Denver. Pitcher said in a written statement last week that he would support a land exchange between McCombs and the Forest Service to realign the development.
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Pitcher called the new proposal a big improvement “in terms of wetland protection and less interference with skiing.”
The Pitcher family and McCombs were once partners in the proposed resort, but the ski area owners dropped out after objecting to its size and sued to clarify their obligations. That lawsuit and a counterclaim were settled last year.
So were lawsuits by environmentalists after the Forest Service agreed to write a new environmental impact statement for the project. A lawsuit by Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council claimed the Forest Service didn’t adequately analyze the project’s potential impacts.
The groups also contended the developer had undue influence on the process through lobbying of high-level federal officials and pressure on a consultant working on the analysis.
The developer and Forest Service disputed those claims. The Forest Service, however, agreed to write the new environmental review in-house.
Jones said he welcomes a thorough, public review of the project.
Ryan Bidwell of Durango-based Colorado Wild said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the new proposals. But Bidwell expressed concern about Jones’ plan to simultaneously pursue a land exchange through Congress and the Forest Service.
If Congress approves the exchange, an environmental impact statement would have to be written. Bidwell, however, thinks the environmental review should be done before the land exchange gets congressional approval.
“You’d end up with an environmental impact statement after the decision has already been made,” Bidwell said.
Jones has proposed swapping 207 of McCombs’ roughly 300 acres with 207 acres of national forest land a little farther to the east. The remaining 93 acres would stay intact and be next to the new site.
The exchange would move much of the construction away from wetlands and the ski slopes and partly behind trees. A big difference is that the development would abut U.S. 160. The existing site would require building an access road across forest land to the private property.
The new proposal also calls for reducing the total number of residential units by about a quarter, dropping to 1,700 from 2,200. Jones said he has projected building about 500 units, including a hotel and condos, in the first phase, which could take 10 years to complete.
A key, Jones, said is that development in the resort would be tied to expansion of the ski area. He said if McCombs agrees to the scaled-back version, the plan would phase in more development as the ski area terrain increased. That phased approach would be locked into building plans approved by the county so any change in ownership wouldn’t change the pace of growth, Jones said.
“We knew we had to do something with the size of the village to coincide with what’s going on with the mountain,” Jones said.