November 2011

McCombs tries again for Village at Wolf Creek

By Peter Miesler

It appears Billy Joe “Red” McCombs’ longtime dream of constructing a luxury resort town in the middle of Alberta Park (elevation: 10,300 feet), nestled against the Continental Divide on Wolf Creek Pass Colorado and coincidentally home to some 40 feet of annual snowfall, burns hot as ever.

After having over a decade’s worth of development preparations thwarted, Mc- Combs dumped Bob Honts, his developer, regrouped his Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture and has hired a new developer, Clint Jones, to spearhead a new plan of attack. Since their current location is so contentious, they have proposed a land swap.

The new plan is to trade approximately 170 acres of the southern portion of Mc- Combs’ holding for roughly 204 acres of Rio Grande National Forest land located north and northeast of his property. This parcel would bridge McCombs’ holdings to U.S. Highway 160. And it contains a smaller wetlands area. The difference in development potential between the two parcels of land is night and day.

Half a year ago the Rio Grande National Forest agreed to consider McCombs’ land swap offer and is currently preparing an Environmental Impact Statement on the proposal. They hope to release a draft EIS early in 2012, followed by a public comment period. It’s estimated that a final draft will appear that summer.

Considering the enormous controversy surrounding this project, the Rio Grande National Forest decided to sponsor a four-hour field trip/hike Sept. 20 through Alberta Park, site of the proposed development. Led by District Ranger Tom Malecek, the tour was intended to inform the interested public about the project and offer a friendly setting for folks to speak with the various principals.

In addition to Forest Service officials, representatives from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, and state Department of Transportation were in attendance, as were Wolf Creek Ski Area’s Davey Pritcher and some of his folks, developer Clint Jones and Dusty Hicks, Mineral County Commissioner Scott Lamb and Archuleta County Commissioner Michael Whiting, Paul Joyce and Warren Rider from Rocky Mountain Wild, Rio de la Vista with the San Luis Valley Wetlands Group and Chris Canaly from the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, along with another 60-80 assorted interested citizens.

In all, over a hundred people met up at the Wolf Creek Ski Area’s east parking lot on a beautiful early autumn morning and set off hiking toward Albert Park via County Road 391. It occurred to me what a wonderful idea it was to make all of us walk through this sparkling mountain morning.

After about a mile we stopped at a splendid overview of Alberta Park, with the Great Divide and Wolf Creek Ski Area’s slopes gracing the background.

District Ranger Malecek brought along large mounted maps and described the borders of the land in question. He touched on access issues regarding CR 391, which is a seasonal dirt road, meaning that when the snow starts falling, it is closed until spring thaw.

Also it’s a dirt road engineered for light traffic. To build a luxury resort, one needs access for heavy trucks and equipment and all the other traffic that comes with the construction zone. CR 391 presents a major obstacle to developing McCombs’ parcel.

Then it was on to discussing the targeted piece of federal land which lies next to U.S. 160. It was explained that Jones has initiated preliminary discussions with CDOT regarding a highway interchange, but given the tentative nature of the swap and construction, these talks have more to do with opening communication than any actual planning.

Malecek was asked about water rights and water availability. He responded that, though not final, the legal team’s opinion seems to indicate water rights are secure and Forest Service engineers/geologists seemed to be establishing that the quantity of water needed is available. The group’s response was skeptical, leading to more questions and a couple heated comments until a decision was made to move on.

After about another mile, including some fun off-trail bushwhacking down a forested slope, we arrived at a tiny lake surrounded by bog terrain that felt spongy underfoot. Occasionally the water would ripple, reminding us that there was a teeming community under that water’s mirror surface.

While gazing out at this idyllic scene, some of us pictured it surrounded by pavement and multi-story McMansions sitting empty, another speculative obsession gone bust. Appetites spoiled, we began asking about the development’s potential destruction of such a pristine area, which includes a biological community stretching beyond the wetlands to existing wildlife corridors, wildlife habitat, the Rio Grande River and riparian zone.

More questions arose regarding how energy will be supplied to the town, and other infrastructure challenges. These questions were rejected as out of bounds because the agency is bound to only consider the land swap — not any future development intentions or potential impacts.

Malecek pointed out that most of the above issues will need to be taken up with the Mineral County commissioners, who have jurisdiction over development within their county, once the swap is settled and the project moves forward.

Many folks voiced frustration that protecting species habitat, migration corridors, the fens and other watershed elements seemed important but lost issues: Why weren’t down-to-earth questions regarding the many threats such a speculative development poses to this productive biological community considered in the Forest Service decision-making processes?

Malecek said these items are being considered in the EIS, but the Forest Service may not have legal jurisdiction over some of them. Still, the agency can and will analyze the potential impacts. During the comment period after the draft’s release, citizens are encouraged to bring up specific issues.

Other questions turned to further logistical issues, road maintenance, police and other emergency services, impacts on surrounding communities and all their related costs. But it was pleaded that these were outside of the current Forest Service scope and they would not be resolved during this pleasant walk in any event.

Clint Jones had remained in the background, but at this respite it was appropriate for him to respond to questions. He laid down a simple argument, one directed toward those such as myself, who want to reject any development of Alberta Park.

Jones said there is a simple choice here: McCombs will develop his parcel – we can do it easy, or we can do it hard. The easy route, he said, would be to support the land swap. Because if that fails, McCombs will have no choice but to develop on his existing property in the heart of Alberta Park.

It all seemed simple to him: If you’re an environmentalist concerned with fens, wetland features and all that, why wouldn’t you support the development being moved slightly uphill? His challenge was: Which outcome would you rather be a part of ?

Listening to Jones, I got the feeling he sincerely believes this land must be developed. It struck me that perhaps people such as me who want to protect Alberta Park have been challenged to try educating Jones and McCombs (including his business partner and daughter Marsha) and the Rio Grande National Forest decision-makers regarding the many reasons why a speculative luxury resort smack against the Continental Divide is a fatally flawed idea that should be laid to rest once and for all.

Peter Miesler writes from near Durango, Colo., and maintains an informational website: http:// NO-villageatwolfcreek.blogspot.com.