Magistrate recommends extension of injunction in Wolf Creek case
DENVER – A planned ski village should remain on hold long enough to give environmental groups a chance to have their lawsuit seeking to block construction heard in court, a federal magistrate recommended Tuesday.Federal Magistrate Judge David West recommended that a preliminary injunction blocking the development at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwestern Colorado be extended until the lawsuit by Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council moves through court.A preliminary injunction was set to expire June 15. U.S. District Judge John Kane in Denver, who last summer granted a temporary request blocking the development, will consider West’s recommendation.”Obviously, this is good news after three years,” said Brad Bartlett, a Durango attorney representing the environmental groups.Bartlett conceded that it “could be a while” before the groups’ lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service makes it to court.West wrote in his recommendation that the environmental groups’ complaint raises serious enough questions to make the case ripe for litigation.The lawsuit is one of a handful filed over plans by Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs to build hotels, homes and businesses on nearly 300 acres of private land at the base of the Wolf Creek ski area in southwest Colorado.The Village at Wolf Creek, proposed by McCombs’ company the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, could eventually include 222,100 square feet of commercial space and enough housing for up to 10,500 people.Bob Honts, president of the Village at Wolf Creek, the development company, brushed off the magistrate’s recommendation. The developer, an intervener in the case, supports the Forest Service, which last year approved construction of roads to the private land, crucial to starting work on the village.”We’re not necessarily pleased (with the recommendation),” Honts said. “It’s kind of more of the same that we’ve had.”The controversy, though, hasn’t dampened people’s interest in Wolf Creek, Honts said. The company gets three or four e-mails a month from prospective buyers and contractors, he said.”This project is going to get built. They’re just playing for delay,” Honts said.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. They also note that the area is prime habitat for the lynx, a threatened species the Colorado Division of Wildlife is trying to restore to the state by trapping cats in Canada and Alaska and releasing them in the southwestern Colorado mountains.Other legal hurdles for McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications, include 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 Pitcher family 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.Mineral County and the developer have appealed a state district judge’s revocation of the county’s approval of the project because of questions over access to the land.The environmental groups claim 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 Forest Service decided early on 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 Forest Service has also said that it’s legally obligated to provide access to private land surrounded by forest land.Environmental groups allege the developer has had undue influence on the process through lobbying by high-level federal officials and pressure from 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.
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