The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners rendered a decision on a proposed congressional land swap for the controversial Village at Wolf Creek during its regular meeting, Tuesday.
The BoCC passed a series of four motions concerning the latest proposed plan for the Village (Plan B), three of which passed with 2-1 votes that left Commissioner Clifford Lucero as the board’s sole voice of opposition.
The new, smaller Village Plan B proposes a congressional land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service of 207 acres of Village-owned land around Alberta Park and the lower half of the waterfall area, an area of wetlands and skiable terrain, for 207 acres northeast of Alberta Park with U.S. 160 frontage.
Further, the development plan calls for 492 units in phase one, with growth tied to the capacity of the ski area, meaning if the ski area does not expand, the Village development would remain at its initial size.
The first of the motions concerned releasing a legal opinion obtained by the county from attorney-client privilege in order to share the findings with the town council.
The county hired a third-party, nonaffiliated law firm in November to help the BoCC better understand the legal aspects of the original Village plan (Plan A — the original plan for a much larger development than in Plan B) on file with Mineral County.
Rebecca Almon, head of the Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources group at Ireland Stapleton Pryor and Pascoe, PC, out of Denver, was the attorney employed.
In the introduction, the legal opinion states, “It is our opinion that development of some variation on plan A will occur on the Property if the Developer chooses to comply with the applicable regulatory requirements and continues to pursue the project notwithstanding the challenged, additional delays, and increased expenses it may face” (See below for more on the opinion).
The BoCC then held a public hearing on the land exchange, prompting comments about the need to postpone a BoCC decision in order for the public to have time to read the newly released legal opinion regarding Plan A.
Instead, Commissioner Bob Moomaw asked County Attorney Todd Starr to give the audience a brief overview of the opinion before continuing the hearing.
Many of those who commented at the hearing opposed the exchange and a legislative track, citing environmental and economic concerns, and called for an open administrative process with transparency, diligence and intelligence.
“To try to bypass the forest service and make a land exchange of 270 acres for 270 acres sounds OK if you’re sitting at a desk in Washington, but we know that the 270 acres the developer is trying to get rid of is fraught with easements and with wetlands,” said Jim Lincoln (Note: the actual acreage proposed for the land exchange is 207 acres).
“Bottom line, from my point of view, is we, the county, the citizens of the county, and the representatives of the citizens need to do the most thorough job possible to get the most factual visualization of what’s involved up there, and that is the administrative approach to the EIS through the forest service, no question,” said Dean Cox.
“I’d hate to be a trout living in that stream, I don’t care what they say ... the guy’s going to have to rob every natural resource that exists up there for that resort to exist,” Jerry Tucker said, adding that, “nobody wants it.”
While most voiced opposition, a few spoke in favor, citing economic development and private property rights.
Janet Santopietro, representing the Association of Realtors, said, “The association believes that this development will bring some economic, positive influence to Pagosa Springs and Archuleta County. We also support smart growth, so we do support the new, smaller development and the smaller footprint. We also support private property rights and Red McCombs and his company have the right to develop that property.”
Lisa Reeve echoed the sentiment, adding that she wants the BoCC to “be at the table.”
Members of the BoCC followed the public hearing with statements of their own.
“The decision on the Village at Wolf Creek is a complicated one, we all know that. It’s very complicated,” Lucero said.
Lucero reported that he has had many constituents call with concerns about the Village, the processes, and the impacts of the proposed Village on the county and environment.
“In general, they want to see a legitimate administrative review process. That being said, government always works better from the bottom up instead of from the top down” Lucero said, adding, “I believe the forest service process is the only way to get adequate public input.”
Commissioner John Ranson stated that “a difficult decision requires a substantial review of information,” something the BoCC has worked to acquire over the last three months through a variety of methods.
“This decision is not to approve the Village at Wolf Creek. This decision boils down to the likelihood of something occurring and what is the best alternative with going forward for the county of Archuleta and county residents,” Ranson said.
Ranson continued, stating that it is the BoCC’s job, when possible, to boost economic options for the county.
“This is an opportunity to work together with other distressed counties in this region, other towns, the Town of Pagosa Springs and the development company to negotiate the best alternative for Archuleta County.”
“Wow. This has really been a very difficult one for me,” Commissioner Bob Moomaw began, noting the “huge amount” of public input to the commissioners.
“In my heart of hearts, I would love to not see a Village up there. Period. I think most people aren’t aware that I fought very hard to defeat the initial proposal. I thought it was a bad proposal. And I put a lot of time and a considerable amount of money into that effort.”
Moomaw explained that he determined the project could not be stopped, so he moved on to focus on the best result for Archuleta County and the environment. He noted that the best way for the county to have more input in the process is by supporting the land exchange and legislative process conditionally.
Moomaw reported that his conditions where that an EIS be completed with public input, that the total number of units for all phases not exceed 750, that a special taxing district be established to help affected communities, and that the number of hotel rooms in the first phase be limited to 70.
The BoCC then voted, Moomaw and Ranson in favor, Lucero against, to support the land exchange, to conditionally support the legislative process (with Moomaw’s stated conditions), and to direct staff to write a letter to U.S. Rep. John Salazar regarding their positions.
Other area governments have sent letters to U.S. Rep. John Salazar in support of the controversial swap.
In a letter dated Oct. 27, the Monte Vista City Council signalled its support for the land exchange, noting that the decision to support was unanimous.
Earlier, in a letter dated Oct. 13, the Rio Grande County Board of County Commissioners backed the land exchange and legislative process, writing, “We have received numerous letters of support from residents within our county in support of this land exchange including support from residents who were opposed to the originally proposed development.”
Both letters cited alleviation of wetland issues, and public recreation and economic development as reasons for backing the plan.
The Archuleta County Democrats drafted a resolution dated Nov. 19 in which they encouraged the BoCC and town council to oppose the congressional land exchange. The resolution also encourages a “publicly transparent administrative land exchange process, overseen by the Rio Grande National Forest.”
Though many government entities have voiced their opinions on the proposed land exchange, Salazar has stated publicly that there needs to be more consensus from both sides of Wolf Creek Pass before Congress could consider involvement.
Clint Jones, executive vice president of Hal Jones Development, LLC, Billy Jo “Red” McCombs’ developers, has said they hope to hear a decision from Salazar soon.
“Whatever is decided, we need to start moving forward,” Jones said.
Jones has said he hopes to employ both the congressional land exchange track and an administrative track through the USFS in his Plan B strategy, which would allow for more public input than the legislative track.
If Salazar does not sponsor the exchange or, possibly, if he takes too long to decide, the developers would move forward with the Village’s original Plan A.
“We’ve said all along, if the land exchange doesn’t occur, we’d go back to the original plan,” Jones said.
That could make the county’s legal opinion more germane.
The opinion’s summary states that final approval of the original Plan A cannot be given until the property has adequate access, which the United States Forest service must provide under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, but that the USFS would determine the extent of “reasonable access.”
Plan A would likely require a variation to provide access, but that the variations not change the density or “foreclose development,” according to the opinion.
Also, “The Amended Scenic Easement places numerous conditions on development activities that the Forest Service may enforce” and USFS approval would be required if the plan changes significantly from its current form.
The developer and plan would have to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the USFS will prepare an Environmental Impact Statement if and when the developer pursues the access, according to the opinion.
“Plan A must comply with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, but no foreseeable fatal flaws are likely to arise,” the summary states.