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‘Village’ developers seek federal help

According to local and federal officials, it appears Village at Wolf Creek developers may be trying an end-run around the public by seeking congressional support for another land exchange that would bypass the public process and ultimately and arguably ease the permitting and approval processes necessary for construction to begin.

According to Edward Stern, deputy press secretary for Congressman John Salazar, “Congressman Salazar has certainly met and listened to those on both sides of the issue. At this point it’s uncertain what role, if any, he would play and it’s possible that any land exchange may in fact have to be done administratively.”

When asked to explain “administratively,” Stern said a land exchange could be executed via presidential action.

According to a number of local government officials, the developers are seeking an act of congress that would allow them to exchange about 200 acres of unbuildable land (largely wetlands) on the existing village tract for roughly 200 acres of forest land with U.S. 160 frontage. Presumably, the exchange would work in the developer’s favor, such that it would either mitigate or eliminate many of the vexing access issues that have beleaguered the project since its inception.

Specifically, previous incarnations of the Village at Wolf Creek have depicted a mountain ski village capable of accommodating up to 10,000 people, near the top of Wolf Creek Pass and adjacent to Wolf Creek Ski Area. Unfortunately for the developer, Forest Road 391 (also called Tranquility Road) currently provides the only access to the property from U.S. 160, and in its current state — little more than a glorified jeep trail that is snowbound in the winter — it appears hardly capable of serving as the sole access to, or main artery through, a 10,000 person mountain village. Obviously, major improvements would be required.

In order to remedy the access issues and to mitigate the hazards associated with village traffic accessing U.S. 160 from Tranquility Road, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the U.S. Forest Service — two of the key agency approvals needed for the project — authorized a second access point, a road across the property and other traffic management measures, while suggesting a second access point to U.S. 160 at a site east of the ski area near the snow shed.

In light of the site’s topography, designing and constructing the second access point near the snow shed translated into a colossal and expensive undertaking, and former village front man Bob Honts indicated it was an expense village developers, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, was not interested in bearing. Hence, presumably, the recent request for another land exchange.

Beyond access issues, arguably dubious land exchanges — and other developer-Forest Service interactions — have been the second hallmark of the controversial project. For example, the current 287.5-acre village tract was the product of a previous land exchange executed in 1986.

According to federal documents, Leavell Properties Inc. approached the Forest Service proposing a land exchange — 1,631.38 acres of land in Saguache County for 420 acres atop Wolf Creek Pass.

Regional Forester James Torrence reviewed the request, and on Feb. 20, 1986, ruled against the exchange, writing that keeping the Wolf Creek property in the federal system, “ ... would maintain the long term environmental quality of the Federal parcel.”

According to the documents, Torrence’s decision could be appealed and challengers had 45 days to file.

Barely two weeks later, on March 6, 1986, Torrence issued a wholesale reversal of his Feb. 20 decision and authorized the “land-for-land” swap, with four conditions — the final condition stipulating that “development of the Federal land conveyed is compatible with Wolf Creek Ski Area.”

There is no documentation to support Torrence’s change of heart.

Fast forward to 2001. Although the developers had obtained the parcel, access to the property had become a major obstacle to realizing their plans and developer’s representatives sought federal legislative support for an act that would grant them access without an environmental impact statement (EIS).

According to Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, the tactic at the time was to attach a rider to the 2001 National Energy Bill conveying a permanent road and transit easement to the Village at Wolf Creek Property Owners Association, from U.S. 160 to the village boundary.

“When that failed they initiated the EIS process in late 2003,” Bidwell said.

Fast forward again to 2005, and since then, allegations have surfaced alleging, among other things, violations of public processes and charges that the developer unlawfully influenced top-tier Forest Service officials and a Forest Service contractor while seeking reviews and approvals of their project.

That said, the developers were mired in litigation with the Pitcher family, owners of Wolf Creek Ski Area, Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council.

Ultimately, court rulings on those cases put the project back to square one, and during the fall of 2008, Hal Jones of Hal Jones Development LLC, took the lead as the project’s new front man, with Jones promising a new project and a new way of doing business with regulatory agencies and the public alike.

That said, Jones and his colleagues then embarked on a new EIS process.

By winter, however, and despite claims that their development plans had changed, the developers failed to comply with Forest Service requests for those plans, and the Forest Service halted the EIS process in February 2009.

Since then, the project has hung in limbo. However, recent events indicate the project’s wheels are turning again.

For example, developer representatives Dusty Hicks, broker for Village at Wolf Creek Properties and Investments LLC, and Clint Jones, executive vice president of Hal Jones Development LLC, have held a series of private, individual meetings with Archuleta County commissioners Clifford Lucero, Bob Moomaw and John Ranson.

In commenting on the discussions, Moomaw said, “One of the things that bothers me is that they’re trying to do it (the land exchange) through a legislative process as opposed to the Forest Service process. The Forest Service process is a very public process and that is the way it should go,” Moomaw said. “Right on the surface, there’s a huge disparity between what they have and what they want to get.”

Although Commissioner Lucero wouldn’t discuss details of his Tuesday conversation with Hicks and Jones, he said, “I had a meeting with them and it went well, but I have to listen to my constituents, and my constituents are saying they don’t support an act of Congress. They do support the public process.”

Bidwell, whose group has battled the project on many fronts, said, “We continue to believe the public should have a chance to weigh in on this project. The impacts, positive or negative, should be thoroughly examined before any decisions are made.”

Although Clint Jones did not return requests for comment by press time, he pledged to meet with SUN staff next week to discuss the land exchange and other project details.

james@pagosasun.com