Forest Service call settlement over Wolf Creek a ‘fresh start’
February 20, 2008
DENVER – Federal officials called an out-of-court settlement requiring a new environmental analysis of a proposed ski village “a fresh start,” but said Wednesday they still must grant the developer access across national forest land.Two environmental groups challenging approval of new roads across forest land to nearly 300 acres of private property at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwest Colorado settled the lawsuit when the U.S. Forest Service agreed to redo the environmental impact statement.The lawsuit contended the Forest Service didn’t adequately analyze the potential impacts of the project by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs. They also claimed the developer pressured a contractor hired to conduct an independent environmental review.The settlement, announced Tuesday, voids Forest Service approval of construction of two roads to McCombs’ property. It follows a federal judge’s ruling last October that put the project on hold until the lawsuit was resolved.”We always felt that our original decision-making process was good, but we knew there were questions raised by people and concerns,” said Dan Dallas, supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest.The Forest Service will prepare the new environmental impact statement in-house rather than hire another contractor. The agency also will follow the court’s direction to more thoroughly review the impacts of building the road and consult with other agencies, including the Colorado Department of Transportation.But Dallas said in a phone conference with reporters that federal law requires his agency to provide reasonable access over public land to private property.”It’s not our intent to analyze the various levels of development,” Dallas said. “We don’t have jurisdiction over private land.”Mineral County had approved building permits for the ski village, which could include up to 222,100 square feet of commercial space and enough housing for up to 10,500 people. A state district court voided the permits, saying the county had not followed a state law requiring year-round access for vehicles.Bob Honts, president of the Village at Wolf Creek, the development company, said Tuesday that he believes the road to the property eventually will be approved. Honts said he and McCombs weren’t entirely happy with the earlier decision on how the roads would be constructed.Forest Service officials estimated a new review and public hearing process will take about 18 months.Ryan Bidwell, of Durango-based Colorado Wild, one of the groups that sued, said he hopes the new study will take a harder look at the proposal. Colorado Wild and its partner in the lawsuit, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, have said the development would degrade the environment.”The (Forest Service) does have a great deal of discretion,” Bidwell said.The agency has a scenic easement on the property, which a former partner of McCombs acquired through a land swap with the Forest Service in the 1980s. The easement restricts building heights, architectural style and prohibits storage of hazardous materials, which could become an issue if the developer pursues building a power plant on the site.Still pending is a lawsuit by the Pitcher family, who run the Wolf Creek ski area on forest land 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 owe him at least $20 million for expenses resulting from their reneging on an agreement to extend the ski area’s road to his property.