The Durango Telegraph
June 8, 2015

SOUTH FORK – 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 “village” near the base of the Wolf Creek.

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 should get built. It’s 20 minutes from South Fork, the closest town with just minimal services, and Pagosa Springs is 30 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 that 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 about 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,” he 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.

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.

The land exchange also illustrates a change in the Forest Service, says Jim Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He points to the approved expansion of the Crested Butte Ski Area onto Snodgrass Mountain in the 1980s. Owners of the ski area did nothing with the approval and, when the expansion was proposed again several years ago, the local community had changed its thinking – as had the Forest Service itself. Reviewing the geological instability of Snodgrass, the Forest Service said no.

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 and also held the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets basketball franchises. He was co-founder of Clear Channel Communications.

McCombs 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. More years than not, the now-abandoned Cuchara had too little snow. On the other hand, this site may have 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 struggled.

See Teton County, Idaho, as a classic example. But for a more direct comparison, consider the Adam’s Rib ski area south of Eagle, formally proposed in 1972. 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 on the site. However, despite relative close proximity to Vail and I-70, memberships at the Adam’s Rib golf course languished. He recently sold his final stake.

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