Feds agree to redo environmental review of proposed ski village
February 20, 2008
DENVER -Federal officials have agreed to do a new environmental review of a proposed ski village that has spurred several lawsuits.
The agreement announced Tuesday by the U.S. Forest Service will settle a lawsuit by environmental groups challenging the proposed development at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwest Colorado.
The Forest Service had approved access over national forest land to land owned by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, who wants to build 222,100 square feet of commercial space and enough housing for up to 10,500 people.
But the developer has been stymied since the 2006 approval by lawsuits by environmental groups, the operators of the ski area and a federal injunction that prevented any work until at least one of the legal battles was resolved.
“This is a major setback for the project. I hope the developer will consider other options instead of pursuing a new environmental impact statement,” said Ryan Bidwell, of Durango-based Colorado Wild, one of the groups that sued to force a new review.
Bidwell said he hopes McCombs decides to sell his nearly 300 acres at Wolf Creek or trade it out.
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Bob Honts, president of the Village at Wolf Creek, the development company, said the plan is to “keep chugging ahead.”
“If we have enough persistence and money and endurance, then we shall prevail,” Honts said.
The developers believe the Forest Service will follow the law that requires the federal government to provide access to private property surrounded by federal land, Honts said. He declined, though, to speculate how long he and McCombs might have to wait for the new environmental review to be completed.
The agreement signed Tuesday by Colorado Wild, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and the Forest Service settles a lawsuit by the two groups. Their lawsuit argued that the Forest Service didn’t adequately analyze the potential impacts of the project when it approved construction of a new road for primary access to the site from U.S. 160 and an extension of a road from the ski area’s parking lots.
The groups also claimed that the developer had undue influence on the process through lobbying of high-level federal officials and pressure on a consultant paid by the developer but directed to independently analyze the impacts of the roads. Environmentalists say e-mails and other documents show Honts and the consultant, Virginia-based Tetra Tech Inc., pressured Forest Service staffers to favor the developer.
The developers have denied those claims.
Last year, U.S. District Judge John Kane in Denver granted the two groups an injunction preventing work on the project until the lawsuit was resolved.
Bidwell said the Forest Service will write the new environmental analysis in-house and will consider the potential impacts of the ski village when reviewing construction of the access roads.
The Forest Service decided early during the previous review that denying the application for the road wouldn’t block the village because the developer could use a logging road to get to the private land. That decision effectively concentrated the resulting analysis on the road, with only a limited look at the consequences of the village.
The developer and area residents who support the ski village say it would generate badly needed jobs and revenue for a struggling part of the San Juan Mountains, about 230 miles southwest of Denver.
Opponents say it could degrade the environment and overtax schools and other services in Mineral County, home to fewer than 1,000 full-time residents.
Another legal hurdle for the project is a lawsuit by the Pitcher family, who run the Wolf Creek ski area on the Rio Grande National Forest and were once partners in the development. The Pitchers said they dropped out of the project after objecting to its size and are suing to clarify their obligation to McCombs.
McCombs has said the Pitchers owes him at least $20 million for expenses resulting from their reneging on an agreement to extend the ski area’s road to his property.
A district court also voided the developer’s building permit granted by Mineral County.