DENVER – Environmental interests and the developers behind a proposed development for the Village at Wolf Creek signed an agreement to prohibit construction until the latest lawsuit surrounding the project is settled.
A coalition of opponents to the development – including San Juan Citizens Alliance, Rocky Mountain Wild and San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council – announced the agreement Tuesday evening. Under the terms, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture would not move ahead with construction on two disputed land parcels at the top of Wolf Creek Pass until after the lawsuit is decided. The U.S. Forest Service also signed the agreement.
“This agreement ensures that the pristine nature of Wolf Creek pass is maintained while the federal court hears our challenge to the land exchange,” said Matt Sandler, an attorney who helped broker the deal. “The Forest Service and the developer agreed that they will not physically alter the condition of the land, and more importantly, the agreement lays the groundwork for the parcels to be returned to their original ownership should we prevail in court.”
Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs has been trying since 1986 to build the Village at Wolf Creek at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area. But he has met resistance the entire way, including a series of lawsuits.
His proposal is to swap private land in a large meadow below the ski area for Forest Service land abutting U.S. Highway 160. The project would create hotels, townhouses, condominiums and restaurants within the remote area. Developers would offer 177 acres of private land to the Forest Service in the Rio Grande National Forest in exchange for about 205 acres of federal land.
Developers crossed a major hurdle when the U.S. Forest Service gave the land swap the go-ahead in May. But developers fully expected additional roadblocks.
The coalition of environmental interests filed a federal lawsuit last month, which is similar to previous cases. The thrust of the case rests with the environmental-impact analysis, suggesting that it was narrow in scope.
Forest officials, however, say the swap is their only recourse given legal parameters. They considered a 1980 law called the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which contains a provision that requires owners of in-holdings to be given reasonable access to their property. That means year-round access for developers, officials say.
For opponents of the development, the agreement is more precautionary, as developers are still a long way off from construction, even if the courts give them the final go-ahead. For developers, the agreement allows them to move forward with planning without facing a possible injunction from the courts, which would delay planning steps.
“From our perspective, just as much as it may appear for the other side that it’s good for them ... for us, it allows us not to waste the time we would have wasted while waiting on the lawsuit,” said Clint Jones, spokesman for the developers. “We can still move forward and do a lot of the things we were going to have to do anyway during that time frame.”
Agreements still need to be reached with many agencies and governments, including the Colorado Department of Transportation and Mineral County. Developers also have to address any water-rights issues. The process could take years before developers put shovels in the ground, though the earliest initial stages of development could come as early as next summer, Jones said.
Jimbo Buickerood, public-lands coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance, said there was no guarantee the court would order an injunction, so the agreement was the safest way to delay development pending the case.
“What the court decides is unknown for everyone,” Buickerood said. “We’re happy about it because it prevents them from hopping right in there and beginning their activities.”