DENVER – The saga of the Village at Wolf Creek entered a new chapter in Denver Wednesday as oral arguments in a pending lawsuit were heard by a federal judge.
The controversy spans more than three decades since Texas billionaire B.J. “Red” McCombs proposed the development in the 1980s on behalf of the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture.
The previous chapter, which sparked Wednesday’s hearing, was the approval of a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and the privately owned venture in 2014. This swap would transfer 205 acres of Rio Grande National Forest land for 177 acres of privately owned land.
The transaction is crucial for the proposed development, as it grants direct access to U.S. Highway 160. The development would include hotels, town homes, condominiums and restaurants and is estimated to accommodate 8,000-10,000 people.
A group of local environmental organizations, the Friends of Wolf Creek, claim in the lawsuit against the Forest Service that it colluded with developers to push through an Environmental Impact Statement that did not fully investigate the effects of the project.
Travis Stills, an attorney representing Friends of Wolf Creek, reinforced that argument during the hearing Wednesday.
The Forest Service gave into the demands of the developers without properly exploring its options for protecting the ecology of the area by limiting the concession of a roadway to access the lands as is required by federal law, he said.
“The Forest Service has power to control the development and they need to analyze that power… but they went forward as if they could not,” he said.
By pursuing an easement to allow access the Forest Service could have maintained some level of control over what could or could not go into the development, which is surrounded by federal forest lands and has two wilderness areas nearby.
A land exchange gives the venture a free pass to develop as it will instead allowing the Forest Service to place restrictions, Stills said. “This unrestricted parcel can be described as a radical switch.”
Barclay Samford, attorney for the Department of Justice, said the Forest Service believed dispersing the development through the exchanged land would reduce the environmental conflicts and avoids an easement that it would have to manage and maintain.
“It’s actually better for the public interest to use the land exchange,” Samford said.
Senior Judge Richard P. Matsch, however, said there was more at stake than the effect on local communities.
“I understand the public’s interest but there is also the natural environment’s interests, which is what this is all about,” he said.
Bill Leone, attorney for the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, said describing the land exchange as a free pass to construct whatever they wanted is incorrect as the EIS was based on the proposed development and therefore parameters are in place.
“These are not just lines on a map, there is a very specific development plan,” Leone said. The venture also is limited by the building restrictions for new construction in Mineral County.
Also central to the plaintiffs case are claims that the Forest Service ignored vital factors when conducting their environmental study.
The study was lacking in details about the presence of Canada Lynx in the Rio Grande National Forest, the level of beetle kill in the area and overall effects of climate changes on the environment.
Some of these were debated during the hearing, specifically the presence of Lynx in the area surrounding Wolf Creek Ski area.
Leone also questioned the characterization of the area by environmentalist in light of the history of mining and lumber operations and the presence of the ski area.
“To say this development is in the most pristine area of wilderness is an overstatement,” Leone said.
What was not debated, at Matsch’s request, was the accusation of McCombs applying undue influence on the Forest Service to push the EIS through.
The environmental groups are backing this claim with a series of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act request that ask employees of the Forest Service to delete correspondence relating to the land exchange.
No timeframe was given for Matsch, who requested the oral arguments, to issue a decision on the case.
“He’s got a lot to think about so we’ll see,” Stills said.