Controversial southern Colorado resort takes another step toward construction.
By: Jodi Peterson, High Country News
December 2, 2014
For nearly two decades, developers have been trying to get approval to build a massive resort near a tiny southern Colorado ski area. The Village at Wolf Creek would house 10,000 people year round at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. And to build it, they’ve asked the U.S. Forest Service to swap a chunk of the Rio Grande national forest for private land.
Now, the forest supervisor has approved that land swap, moving Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, co-founder of Clear Channel Communications, and his business partners one step closer to their goal. They still have hurdles to clear, though – there’s a 45-day period for filing objections (which are sure to come from the environmental and community groups who have protested the project all along), and then the Forest Service may opt to revise the decision based on those objections. And, of course, there’s the question of how many people are going to want to buy a second home in a county of just 712 residents, next to a ski area that boasts record snows but has only six lifts.
The proposed development includes, at full build-out, 1,200 hotel rooms, 130 lots for houses, and 1,660 condos, plus covered parking and 220,000 square feet of retail space. Originally it was slated for Alberta Park, a 288-acre inholding near the base of one of Wolf Creek’s ski lifts. As we reported in 2005, the Forest Service approved the developers’ plans to build two access roads into the inholding, but received a flood of criticism. The agency failed to adequately assess the impact of the resort on the ski area, nearby communities, and the fragile high-mountain ecosystem, said environmental groups, locals, and Wolf Creek’s owner; the agency then launched further study.
Even the presence of an endangered species didn’t halt the project, our story noted:
“Alberta Park links two wilderness areas and is a migration corridor for the threatened Canada lynx, which the state began releasing into the area six years ago. That means the Fish and Wildlife Service must reach a conservation agreement with the developers that will minimize harm to lynx. The Endangered Species Act alone will not stop the project, says Kurt Broderdorp, the agency’s lynx biologist. Even in the worst-case scenario — if the development jeopardized the continued existence of lynx in the Lower 48 states — federal law would require the agency to present a “reasonable and prudent alternative,” rather than killing the project.”
The Village plans continued to sputter along, as we reported.
“Then in 2009, the developers missed a key deadline, and the Forest Service killed its environmental review of the village’s access road altogether. Perhaps more significant was the fallout from the explosion of the housing bubble in late 2008, which rocked even previously untouchable, already established resort communities like Snowmass, Colo. (In 2011), the Forest Service announced that it would conduct a new environmental review of the developers’ latest proposal: A land swap which would eliminate the right-of-way battle altogether by trading out the inholding for a similarly sized parcel on the highway.”
That land swap proposal, 178 acres of private land for 204 acres of national forest, also moved the development project out of the sensitive wetlands of Alberta Park and farther away from the ski area.
Although the land-swap approval isn’t final yet, it seems likely. Even if the Forest Service turned down the trade, it’s still legally required to provide the developers with access to their inholding. Assuming that it all goes through, construction of Phase 1 (about 500 housing units and a hotel) could begin by 2016, according to the developers’ website.
Environmental groups have a better idea of how to use that high-altitude land along Wolf Creek Pass, though. From a Durango Herald story last February:
“They could put a nice sign on top of the pass for the Red McCombs wildlife refuge,” said Jimbo Buickerood of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Jodi Peterson is HCN’s managing editor. She tweets @Peterson_Jodi.