Saturday, August 25, 2012

It Takes A Village: Proposed land swap reopens debate about Village at Wolf Creek

I thank Missy Votel 
for permission to post the full text of this informative article

{PS.  Congratulations Missy on ten wonderful (for us) years of 
publishing Durango's beloved weekly, 
Long live the Durango Telegraph!}

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It Takes A Village - The Durango Telegraph

Volume XI, No. 34, Aug. 24, 2012
In its Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Forest Service examined six designs for the Village at Wolf Creek, three if an access road was built to the private property and three if the land swap occurred. The “Moderate Density Development” option for the access road alternative called for 523 units, including 244 condos, 168 townhomes and almost 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
This rendering was prepared by SE Group, a mountain planning and design firm, for the U.S. Forest Service in May 2012./Photo Illustration by SE Group

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Proposed land swap reopens debate about Village at Wolf Creek

by Tracy Chamberlin

Like the flashing lights at the end of intermission, the publication of an environmental study signaled the start of Act II for the Village at Wolf Creek.

On Fri., Aug. 17, the Forest Service published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining specific courses of action for a swath of private property, owned by Texas businessman Red McCombs, tucked within the boundary at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area.

The 567-page study reviewed three alternatives: a land swap between McCombs and the Forest Service; approval of an access road from Highway 160 to the property; and a course of “no action.”

The land swap, called Alternative 2, would exchange more than 204 acres of federal land, adjacent to Highway 160, for almost 178 acres of private land, including wetland and perennial and intermittent stream habitat. The property is more than 288 acres, and not all of the lands are included in the exchange.

This alternative is considered “to potentially be in the public interest,” according to the DEIS, because it moves the bulk of the proposed development farther away from the ski area, increases the skiable terrain, and gives the Forest Service the wetland and stream habitat.

“Because it’s the preferred alternative, some people think it’s a done deal. That’s not the case at all,” said Michael Blakeman, public affairs specialist for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center, which is composed of the Rio Grande National Forest and the San Luis Valley Bureau of Land Management.

The final decision is in the hands of Dan Dallas, the Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor.

Dallas could choose one of the alternatives or a slightly different alternative that falls within the range of those three alternatives. “By no means is he leaning in any particular direction,” Blakeman said.

Among the land swap proposal details, the study examined three designs for building the Village. One called for 497 units, including 71 hotel rooms, 251 condominiums, 120 townhomes and 55 single family lots, along with almost 50,000 square feet of commercial space.

The other concept looked at 1,711 units with 200 hotel rooms, 821 condos, 522 townhomes, 138 lots and 221,000 square feet of commercial space. A third option examined a plan for a handful of 35-acre individual lots.

The proposed exchange would also solve another issue – road access to the private lands, something that is required by law. Under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, the federal government is obligated to allow private property owners to build access roads if they so desire.
Road access is examined in Alternative 3 of the DEIS. Several configurations were considered, but later eliminated from detailed study. The road that was looked at closely would cross Forest Service lands between Hwy 160 to the north and the private property to the south.

The “no action” option is Alternative 1. If Dallas decides to choose this, then the process would essentially start all over with another study to consider the proposed access road.

It’s also a key option that was missing from a 2006 Environmental Impact Study, which examined the proposed Village on the current property. That study was considered flawed by some because it did not fully examine the impact of access roads to the property and, therefore, did have a “no action” option.

And, that was not the first time the Village of Wolf Creek was at the center of a heated discussion.

Act I
The first act of this hotly debated production began in the 1980s with whispers of a resort-style village at Wolf Creek.

“It’s obviously a very controversial issue,” Blakeman said.

The concept became more than a whisper when the Planning Commission for Mineral County approved an initial design for development of the Village in 2004. That plan would have supported 2,200 residential units and up to 10,000 residents.

Wolf Creek Ski Corporation, Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council filed suit. In the end, the District Court found issue with the way the board handled the proceedings, specifically concerning access to the property.

The proposal used Tranquility Road, which runs through the base area, to access the private lands; however, that was not considered a viable option, and McCombs was forced to seek approval for access to Highway 160 another way.

Because the land is surrounded by public lands, several hurdles need to be overcome before a road can be built. The developers must get year-round access from the Forest Service and Wolf Creek and confirmation that the Colorado Department of Transportation has granted them a permit to access Highway 160 before the Planning Commission can even begin to rehear the issue.

Years later Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, the developer behind the Village proposal, submitted a land exchange application to the Forest Service. That application prompted the Draft EIS that was published Aug. 17 of this year.

The final act begins with publication of the Final EIS.

Blakeman said they are hoping for that in early 2013. However, depending on the breadth and content of comments they receive, that timeline is fluid.

“I encourage the public, special interest groups and our partner agencies to carefully review the DEIS and provide comments that will help further improve our analysis,” Dallas said.

The official word, or Record of Decision, from Dallas is expected around the time the Final EIS is published in the Federal Register, although Blakeman said they often publish the two concurrently.

“At this stage all we’re doing is seeking comment,” he added. The Forest Service is looking for substantive comment on the analysis, something that could benefit the current process or be part of the appeals process.

Comments are accepted for 45 days after the DEIS is published in the Federal Register, which would likely be Oct. 1.

The Forest Service is hosting three open houses:
Creede on Aug. 28; Pagosa Springs on Aug. 29; and Del Norte on Aug. 30. The public can learn about the statement, analysis of the three alternatives and offer comments.

In the meantime, the show must go on.

Written by Tracy Chamberlin

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Dear Friends of Alberta Park and Wolf Creek, 
we have this one moment to tell the Rio Grande Forest Service and the US Department of Agriculture's powers-that-be what a destructive boondoggle this luxury Village at 10,500± elevation would be.

But, they'll never listen to you, if you don't contact them!
Here's where to do that, but you need to do it now, September:

Commenting on This Project
The Forest Service values public input. Comments received, including respondents’ names and addresses, will become part of the public record for this proposed action. Comments submitted anonymously will be accepted and considered; however, anonymous comments will not provide the agency with the ability to provide you with project updates. The Forest Service wishes to provide you with as many opportunities as possible to learn about our activities.

Official Deadline for comments: 9/30/2012. (or is that Friday the 28th, or Monday the 1st?)

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