USFS unplugs the Village

Opponents of the Village at Wolf Creek declared a third major victory Feb. 13, when Forest Service staff announced they were disbanding the environmental impact statement team and halting analysis of the access to the controversial development.

“We have not received a new application from Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture (LMJV) requesting access across the Forest, so we released the analysis team members,” said Jeni Evans, deputy forest supervisor for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center.

Mike Blakeman, public affairs officer for the public lands center added, “The bottom line is we’ve received nothing in writing from them (the developers). We had a team assembled with staff from all over the state and all over the country. They had other jobs, they were basically on loan to us.”

Blakeman said if the developer decides to pursue the project, a similar team will have to be assembled, including coordinating with staff from cooperating agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers.

But the first, the Forest Service must have a new access application, including disclosure of the developer’s village plans.

According to Forest Service staff, the agency has been waiting since September for those plans, after receiving an application from LMJV for permanent road access across National Forest System land to their 287-acre private inholding adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Although the project was originally touted as a village capable of accommodating up to 10,000 people with mixed commercial and residential elements, Blakeman said the Forest Service received information in early October that indicated changes had been made to the original village development plan.

During a previous interview with SUN staff, Hal Jones, a new partner on the village’s design and development team, indicated a willingness to scale back the project from the 10,000- people-at-build-out scenario previously presented by development partner Bob Honts. Jones, at that time however, did not provide details.

As a result, Blakeman said the Forest Service asked LMJV to submit an amended application detailing project changes and also extended the public scoping period for the environmental impact statement from Oct. 31 to Dec. 31, 2008 to give the public additional time to review the changes. But, Evans and Blakeman said, an amended application never came and Evans chose to disband the analysis team.

Although Ryan Demmy Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, chalked up the Forest Service’s recent decision as a victory by technicality, he tallied it as a victory just the same.

“We think it’s great news for the short term that the project is officially on hold,” Bidwell said. “We’re hoping the Forest Service is taking its responsibility seriously in taking an unbiased look at the proposal. We would hope the developer is taking a look at alternative options including a land exchange or selling the property and returning it to the public.”

Although Bidwell and Colorado Wild hope the land might return to the public, it remains unclear what the developer has slated for the parcel — Jones did not return calls to SUN staff by press time.

Nevertheless, a weak national economy and a plummeting real estate market may bode ill for the project, while the Forest Service’s decision marks the most recent setback in a string of legal and procedural setbacks or defeats going back to 2005.

Since then, Colorado Wild, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and a legion of citizens, have battled village developers on multiple fronts.

For example, citizens lobbied their state and federal legislators for help in the fight in late 2005, and former Dist. 59 State Rep. Mark Larson, former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Rep. John Salazar entered the fray. Meanwhile, Colorado Wild battled the developers and the Forest Service in the courtroom, filing a lawsuit in October 2006 that alleged collusion between key Forest Service staff and the developer which resulted in — Colorado Wild argued — a fundamentally flawed environmental impact statement that analyzed only the impact of access roads, but not the impacts of the entire village. That lawsuit was settled in February 2008, and led to the Forest Service’s pledge to address the impacts of the whole village — not just access corridors. One of the most critical blows to the village came in September 2007, when the state Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision and overturned Mineral County’s approval of the project , sending it essentially back to square one.

While the future of the village remains unclear, the Forest Service will officially close out the access analysis project by submitting a statement to the Federal Register withdrawing the Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement. If, in the future, the Forest receives a new proposal from Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, officials will evaluate and consider the next steps at that time.