Pagosa residents chilly to Wolf Creek development proposals

PAGOSA SPRINGS – Concerned residents and conservation groups assembled at the Aragon Recreation Center on Wednesday night to discuss the future of the proposed resort atop Wolf Creek Pass.

For 25 years, Texas developer Billy Joe “Red” McCombs and his partners have sought to develop the “Village at Wolf Creek” – complete with condominiums, townhouses, hotels and restaurants – on his 287-acre parcel near the existing Wolf Creek Ski Area. But his property is surrounded on all sides by Forest Service land and is cut off from direct access to U.S. Highway 160.

Disagreement about the size of the village, its environmental footprint and road access have repeatedly stymied the project.

Two weeks ago, the Forest Service published a 567-page environmental impact analysis outlining three possible scenarios. The preferred option is a land exchange that would trade 204 acres of public land for 178 acres of McCombs’ private holdings. The swap would realign future development to be adjacent to the highway and farther from the ski area.

The other two options under consideration are approving an access road to McCombs’ current parcel through an easement or doing nothing.

After a 45-day public comment period ending Sept. 30, Rio Grande National Forest supervisor Dan Dallas will collate feedback from the public and release a decision in early 2013.

There were no public speeches from either proponents or opponents of the village Wednesday night. Instead, illustrated renderings were set up around the meeting space to help attendees visualize each potential outcome. Forest Service personnel were on hand to answer questions.

Most locals in attendance did not seem impressed.

“It scares me, all this being up in an otherwise pristine area,” said Norm French of Pagosa Springs. “Some of us like (Wolf Creek) the way it is.”

Penny Holmes, a 30-year Pagosa Springs resident, thought the village was simply a pet project by a wealthy investor with no roots in the area.

“This is a little pond, and a big fish has invaded. (McCombs) wants to pursue this because he can,” she said.

Holmes was echoed by Ron Chacey: “How many times is this guy from Texas going to come up and disrupt all of Southwest Colorado? Greed knows no limit.”

Clint Jones, the lead developer and point man for McCombs, strongly disagreed and defended his boss’ motives.

“He’s doing this out of a genuine affinity for the area. It’ll bring more exposure,” Jones said. “New people who have never seen (the area) will realize how beautiful it is.”

Jones explained that a “full build-out” of the village would accommodate about 6,000 people and, even if approved, take 30-40 years to complete.

“We may not even get there. The market will dictate,” he said. “I’m not going to build buildings to sit empty.”

Jones also dismissed concerns that the economic benefits of the village would not trickle down to Pagosa Springs and South Fork.

To Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, the whole idea is foolhardy.

“If you want to benefit the communities, build on both sides of the pass, not up on the Continental Divide at 10,000 feet,” he said.

Ski area owner Davey Pitcher hoped residents’ responses would “be heard” and factored into the final decision.

He expressed tentative support for the land swap option because it would move development to the north, away from wetlands and “cause less impact to the skiing heritage of Wolf Creek.”

If the “no nothing” option is selected, Jones said the developers would appeal. Under federal law, private landowners can demand access to their property if it is enclosed by Forest Service land.

In October 2005, a district judge ruled that Forest Service Road 391 (Tranquility Road), which does connect McCombs’ property to Highway 160, was not sufficient because it is gravel, single-lane and open only seasonally.

lgroskopf@durangoherald.com

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