Mountain Town News: Billionaire gets key OK for Wolf Creek
Mountain Town News
SOUTH FORK, Colo. – Ronald Reagan was president and an 11-foot, 8-inch concrete wall divided Berlin when Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs began efforts to develop a new real estate “village” near the base of the Wolf Creek Ski Area in southern Colorado.
It’s an open question whether McCombs, who is 87, will live long enough to see the project built. It’s also an open question whether the project, located at 10,000 feet and in a location that gets 485 inches of snow on average, should get built. It’s 20 minutes from South Fork, the closest town with just minimal services, and Pagosa Springs is 40 minutes away. The ski area itself has no commercial services outside of ski operations, and even then little more than burgers and fries.
But last week McCombs cleared a key hurdle with a new land exchange that gives him highway access to his parcel, which is otherwise an island in national forest land.
The first major triumph for Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture was in 1986, when the U.S. Forest Service gave the enterprise 300 acres of land at the base of the ski area in exchange for lands elsewhere of comparable value. Those lands were added to the national forest.
But McCombs needed better year-round access, especially after the Pitcher family, which owns the ski area, got out of the partnership. The new land swap approved last week gives McCombs a reconfigured 325 acres, including land leading to U.S. Highway 160, but without problematic wetlands.
Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas insisted that federal law required they provide access to the inholding. “I believe this is the best decision to minimize disturbance to public land while meeting the agency’s legal obligation to provide access to the private property,” he said in a press release.
McCombs stills needs a permit from the state highway agency and possibly another wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Environmental groups may challenge the land swap itself.
Mineral County had approved previous plans but may also want to review the revised project. Janelle Kukuk, the county administrator, says it’s not yet clear what the developers plan that may be different. “We don’t know how similar their current proposal is to the one that was under discussion several years ago,” she says. She and current county commissioners were not in office when the previous approval was given, so there would be fresh eyes.
At one time, the project planned 2,011 housing units. The project analyzed by the Forest Service calls for 500 units.
But Clint Jones, the project leader for McCombs, told The Denver Post his team “is looking at the prospect of starting a little bit smaller for that initial phase.”
“We want to have the ability to gradually move into the phasing of this project and try to find what the right niche is as we build units,” he said. “We expect the market to embrace the project, but it might take a little bit of time and we don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves.”
Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Mountain Town News.
The real estate project has long been hotly disputed by environmental groups in Colorado. They cite various problems, including impacts to Canada lynx habitat. Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, says “it appears” that her group and others will be seeking an injunction to block the land exchange.
Canaly describes the latest land exchange as an attempt by the Forest Service to try to “make a bad idea better.” She said she believes the Forest Service would rather face lawsuits by environmental groups than from McCombs.
McCombs does have deep pockets. In December, Forbes Magazine estimated his wealth at $1.85 billion. He made money in cars, energy and real estate. At one time he owned the Minnesota Vikings football franchise and also held the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets basketball franchises. He was also co-founder of Clear Channel Communications.
He was in the news in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to pay steep penalties related to more than $45 million he tried to shield from taxes.
But the core issue here is whether an inholding at 10,000 feet that gets 485 inches of snow a year should be a real estate development. Canaly points out that McCombs was also involved in a different ski area project, this one at Cuchara, about 75 miles away on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Cuchara, which is now abandoned, more years than not had too little snow for skiing. This site has too much snow for real estate development. “I don’t think Red understands that,” says Canaly.
Too, the Village at Wolf Creek would essentially be a new town. Aspen, Telluride, and a good many other mountain towns began that way, of course. But in the last several decades, real estate developments well away from established amenities, no matter how striking the scenery, have usually struggled.
See Teton County, Idaho, as a classic example, of real-estate overreach. But for a more direct comparison, consider the Adam’s Rib ski area south of Eagle, Colorado, formally proposed in 1972 as the West boomed with ski area success.
Adam’s Rib intended to leverage recreation and real estate, but developer Fred Kummer, while enormously successful in building hotels and hospitals in major cities, could never make the ski area work. He dropped the idea in the late 1970s but continued on to build a golf course and real estate at a site about 7,000 feet in location.
Despite relatively close proximity to Vail, less than an hour away, and just 20 minutes from I-70, memberships at the Adam’s Rib golf course languished. He recently sold his final stake in Adam’s Rib. On the face of it, Adams Rib looks a lot less difficult than the Village at Wolf Creek.
Minor or major hiccup for Jumbo resort plans?
INVERMERE, B.C. – Developers of the major new resort in British Columbia called Jumbo Glacier have suffered a setback. Owners say it’s minor, but opponents describe it as a more fundamental problem for Jumbo, a project in the making for several decades.
Jumbo Glacier, located west of Invermere, had begun building a day lodge and a service building in an area that was found to be in an avalanche zone. Developer Tommaso Oberti told Pique Newsmagazine that it’s a “very minor” hiccup. He said the avalanche mapping had been done differently in the 1990s, suggesting that current mapping procedures would not find the site a problem. As such, only an amendment will be needed.
David Reid, executive director of the West Kootenay Community Ecosociety, said the violation should mean the project’s demise. “I think that raises serious questions about their willingness and their ability to comply with the rest of the environmental certificate.”
The resort, notes Pique, has been billed as Canada’s first year-round ski resort. The plans call for up to 23 lifts and a ski village with more than 6,000 beds.
Relic of mining era in Park City to be fixed
PARK CITY, Utah – Before it was a mountain resort, Park City was a silver-mining town. One relic of that history, the 85-foot-high head frame at the shaft of the Daly West Mine, collapsed in early May.
The Park City Record says city leaders intend to restore the head frame, as they believe it important to maintain the link to the mining economy that dominated Park City until the middle of the 20th century.
As bad as 1976-77, but this season was better
PARK CITY, Utah – Reviewing the last ski season, the ski industry officials in Utah draw a parallel to the winter of 1976-77, the 20th century standard for a snow-less winter.
The snowfall this year was 41 percent of average, but skier days statewide fell only 4.9 percent, to 3.9 million skier-days. In comparison, snowfall was off by a comparable amount in 1976-1977 but skier days fell 53 percent.
The difference? Early-season snow this year but also advanced and broad snowmaking efforts, says Ski Utah, the statewide trade organization. In the 1970s, very few resorts in the West had snowmaking.
But artificial snow will go only so far. In Oregon, Mt. Bachelor ski area had hoped to stay open until Memorial Day, as it usually does, but it closed May 10. It was the earliest closing since 1976-77.
Now comes a second new hotel in Ketchum
KETCHUM, Idaho – Now comes a third new or refurbished hotel in Ketchum and Sun Valley, the side-by-side mountain towns in Idaho.
Sun Valley Lodge has been dramatically updated in the last year, the biggest single updating since the hotel was completed in 1936, the first destination ski resort in the United States. In the early years, it drew the movie stars and, in recent years, continued to draw the big names of business.
But unlike other updates through the years of new paint, carpet and furniture, the structure was gutted this time and reconfigured in a nine-month sprint. The 184 rooms have been reduced to 94, but they are larger and 65 of them have fireplaces. A handful of celebrity suites are the size of small houses (800 to 950 square feet). Those celebrity suites will set you back $669, depending on day and season.
The hotel opens soon, in time for summer, the busiest season in Sun Valley and Ketchum.
Next comes The Aspen Skiing Co.’s arrival with its Limelight Hotel, which will occupy a full city block in Ketchum and is expected to begin construction this year, with completion in 2016.
Now comes the announcement of the Auberge Resort and Residences, Sun Valley, also to be located in Ketchum’s downtown. It is to have 64 rooms and 14 residences and is part of a chain that generally appeals to higher-end travelers, says developer Jack Bariteau.
Bariteau tells the Idaho Mountain Express that it’s a 5-star, full-service hotel, which will compare favorably with the Limelight Hotel’s more limited amenities and 3.5 to 4-star rating. The Auberge hopes to open in 2017.
Colorado law revision may boost open space
VAIL, Colo. – Vail municipal officials began assiduously sewing up dedicated open space in the 1970s, but the broader Eagle County didn’t get after open space preservation until the 1990s.
An official with the Eagle Valley Land Trust now says that donation of parcels for conservation easements will pick up, owing to a change in Colorado law. Before, landowners could get up to $375,000 in marketable tax credits to permanently remove development rights from their land. The new law, says Jim Daus, executive director of the local land trust, allows up to $1.5 million in tax credits.
Eagle County steps up on solar energy
EAGLE, Colo. – Eagle County government, a jurisdiction that includes Vail and Beaver Creek, has purchased enough solar panels in a solar farm to offset about a third of the government’s annual electrical consumption.
In a press release, Eagle County said the investment will reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent.
To achieve this, the county government purchased 3,279 solar panels in an installation near Basalt called Sunnyside Ranch. The county expects to pay off its investment in 12 years.
New golf course would really be a golf amenity
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – You haven’t heard much about new golf courses lately. But a real estate development south of Steamboat Springs called Windwalker Ranch plans a nine-hole golf course.
Peter Patten, a land-use planner representing the ownership group that paid $17.65 million for the cattle ranch several years ago, told local planning commissioners that he prefers to refer to the course as a “golf amenity.” Despite nine holes, the course has just three fairway “complexes” and five shared greens on the 23 acres.
Cannabis in the news in Colorado ski towns
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – Steamboat Springs has three stores that sell cannabis products, the lid established by elected officials last year, and nearly all city council members have no interest in allowing more.
Steamboat Today reports that two of the existing cannabis operators told council members they like the status quo, too. The one dissenting council member, Sonja Macys, prefers letting the free market determine how many stores operate.
But the council in June will take up rules governing personal growing of cannabis plants, as authorized for personal consumption by the constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2012.
In Aspen, cannabis was in the news when a local community center scheduled classes in which participants were to create art while under the influence. But the Chabad Jewish Community Center told The Aspen Times the event has been cancelled.
The Times explained that the class would have been a twist on wine-and-art programs that have taken off around the country.
The balance between being a resort, a town
ASPEN, Colo. – Politics is rarely a genteel pursuit in Aspen, where people wear their passions on their sleeves. Among the most passionate over the years has been Mick Ireland, a one-time newspaper reporter (and bus driver and dishwasher) who later served long tenures as a county commissioner and then as a city council member.
Ireland was term-limited two years ago and announced he intended to actually make some money. He’s also a lawyer. But apparently he just couldn’t keep himself out of the fray. Ireland is in a run-off election on June 2 for the city council. He promises that if elected, this time will surely be his last run.
There’s little of substance that separates Ireland from his opponent, Bert Myrin. Both see high-end development as a major threat to Aspen if not yoked to benefit the locals. Ireland has the longer track record, though. He’s been a big proponent of affordable housing and lives in a deed-restricted house himself, as does about half of Aspen’s full-time residents.
“A town without babies, no matter how beautiful or famous or wealthy, has no claim to vitality,” he said at a recent forum.
Myrin, his opponent, had identified a council decision in 2012 — when Ireland was mayor — that allowed expanded short-term vacation rentals as a major problem.
While Ireland has been thought by many to be brusque and perhaps polarizing, he can point to a long list of endorsements from other office holders, not all of whom have always agreed with him.
Rachel Richards, a current Pitkin County commissioner and former Aspen mayor, credits Ireland with understanding the fine balance that exists between “Aspen the community” and “Aspen the resort.”
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