Will Wal-Mart build in Pagosa?


Staff Writer

Wal-Mart, according to the timeline presented to town council on Dec. 20, was expected to pull a building permit in February, start breaking ground in the middle of the summer and be ready for a grand opening by the spring of 2014.

However, as of March 12, sources have confirmed that Wal-Mart had not submitted an application for a building permit.

“We’ve been in contact with them quite a bit,” town planner James Dickhoff explained. “They think maybe by the end of March, at this point, is when they will submit their building permit plans. Their internal review processes is pretty extensive. Everything’s got to go through corporate, so any changes have to go back, even if they’re small changes, and I think they may have had a few adjustments in their building plans.”

Dickhoff also confirmed that three main items — a Colorado Department of Transportation traffic access permit, an Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit, and a developer improvement agreement and performance bond with the town of Pagosa Springs for finishing Alpha Drive — must be completed before Wal-Mart can submit an application for a building permit.

“So, that may be part of the delay,” Dickhoff admitted, “but they’re still moving forward. There is no indication otherwise. We are in regular communication with them and they are still moving forward. It should take us no longer than two weeks to review the plan set and issue a building permit if the plans are complete and there are no corrections needed.”

On Jan. 8, Nancy Shanks, spokesperson for CDOT, said, “We have transmitted the permit back to the developer (Wal-Mart) for their signature, so it sounds like it is close. It is in their hands; we are just waiting for a signature back.

“Then it looks like there is a separate access permit for Alpha Drive, which is just pending a revision by the applicant. It needs to have the city name on it instead of the county, for example. CDOT is just awaiting their revised application for Alpha Drive and at that time, when we receive that, we will go ahead and issue a permit.”

That was over two months ago.

“I know CDOT’s pretty close,” Dickhoff confirmed. “They were just waiting on some signatures to finish that, but they were complete. I know they have to make some adjustments to their ‘pork chops,’ the right-in/right-out there on Alpha Drive, and one of the islands at Aspen Village Drive and the highway intersect — they need to make some adjustments there.”

Several attempts to contact CDOT this week for a follow-up have gone unanswered.

“The Corps of engineers is still in process,” Dickhoff continued, “but it is an active permit. We don’t see any challenges with the Corps of Engineers. It’s typically just financial capabilities. It’s not that you just can’t do it; it’s that you have to do this. They have to mitigate any wetlands they are disturbing, either on-site or through wetland mitigation banks. That just takes money, and Wal-Mart has the ability to handle that.”

However, Dickhoff’s appraisal of that situation may be overly optimistic.

“I have not issued a permit for the construction of the Wal-Mart yet,” Kara Hellige from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported on March 12. “I requested additional information back in November and I haven’t ever received a response, so I withdrew the application. It is more of an administrative withdrawal in our system; once they get me the information I requested I can reinitiate the permit process and continue reviewing it where I left off.”

Hellige went on to explain three main concerns she has with Wal-Mart’s application. “They need to submit to me a final compensatory mitigation plan; they just submitted to me a conceptual one. I also requested more specific information on their storm water treatment facilities. They didn’t provide me with enough information about their system to determine whether or not it was adequate. I requested more information regarding the removal of dissolved solids such as ice-melt chemicals, which was a common concern I received during our public comment period.”

Hellige’s third main concern involves whether or not Wal-Mart has sufficiently investigated the possibility of building a store at various other sites in the area, including near the corner of U.S. 160 and 84, at the top of Put Hill, or at several locations near the intersection of U.S. 160 and North Pagosa Boulevard.

“I had a phone conversation with them in late January,” Hellige said, “or maybe the beginning of February, and they are working on getting me the information, but I have not received any information yet. On January fifteenth we administratively withdrew the project from our database, which basically means once they submit the information we can then reinitiate our review process from where we left off, unless there are any drastic changes.”

Moving on, Dickhoff mentioned Wal-Mart’s third obligation. “Of course they’ve got to improve Alpha Drive. Really, that was an obligation of the former developer of Aspen Village, which was passed on to Wal-Mart, so Wal-Mart is going to perform on that requirement on behalf of the Aspen Village developer.”

The issue of Alpha Drive was last raised at the Feb. 21 town council meeting, when the second reading of Ordinance 784 occurred, finalizing the annexation of the property into the town of Pagosa Springs.

“Sorry I wasn’t here for the last meeting,” council member David Schanzenbaker said, “but I do have some questions. Why are we doing this at this time? Don’t we normally only annex streets that have already been brought up to town standards?”

“There is a condition in section six of the ordinance,” Dickhoff answered. “I will read that: ‘This ordinance shall become effective and enforced upon the execution of a developer improvement agreement for the improvement of Alpha Drive and upon receipt of the required financial security to ensure the improvement of Alpha Drive to town standards.’

“So, it wouldn’t take effect until we had that financial security in hand. If the developer defaulted, we would have the money in hand to improve the road on our own.”

“So, that’s a way to get around the notion that we are only supposed to annex streets that are already up to town standards,” Schanzenbaker argued, “but, again, why are we doing this now? Why don’t we just wait until the developer gives us the financial security, and then we can proceed with an ordinance to annex the road?”

“As we discussed the sequencing of this matter with our town’s counsel (Town Attorney Bob Cole),” town manager David Mitchem explained, “he recommended moving forward in a timely fashion, so that’s why you have this before you now.”

“But that still doesn’t get to the issue of why do this now,” Schanzenbaker pressed. “Doing this in a timely fashion is two readings of an ordinance. We could do this once we get the financial security within a month. I’ve never really heard a good explanation for why we’re doing this process in this order.”

“Do you guys have any idea of when you might have the financial security issue wrapped up?” Council member Clint Alley interjected.

Dickhoff explained that final site plans need to be finished so that engineering plans for the road can be completed, and the engineering plans are needed to provide an accurate estimate of the total cost for improving the road. “It’s possible we can see all of that in a month and a half, at least being able to execute the developer improvement agreement.”

“Another rationale for doing this now,” Mitchem answered, “is because of the controversy raised by certain property owners a few months ago (as reported in an earlier SUN article, Steve and Vivian Rader’s lawsuit against the town has been dropped), it was appropriate to signal to the developer that the town was serious about moving forward in this process and serious about following through on the annexation of this particular road.”

Neither the annexation of Alpha Drive nor the quit claim deed transferring ownership of the road from Archuleta County to the town will be officially recorded until the developer improves the road.

“Even though items are not recorded until the other side shows good faith as well,” Mitchem concluded, “part of this effort is to show good faith to the developer that we’re moving forward.”

Repeated attempts to contact Wal-Mart spokesman Josh Phair in order to confirm Wal-Mart’s continued progress towards completing its project here in Pagosa Country and its commitment to improving Alpha Drive have gone unanswered. Requests made to the official Wal-Mart media hotline to dispel rumors that the project has been stalled on purpose or that the company is backing out were also unsuccessful.