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Developer holds ‘Village’ public meeting

Developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek held a public forum in Pagosa Springs Oct. 29, another chapter in the story of the controversial Village.

The forum, said by developers to be one of the best attended among those held recently, followed similar meetings in Creede and South Fork earlier in October.

Attendees included area residents, Archuleta and Mineral county commissioners and representatives of both U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. John Salazar.

The forum commenced with a presentation by Clint Jones, executive vice president of Hal Jones Development LLC, the developers of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek, concerning key facts about the new Village plan contingent upon a land exchange.

A land exchange

The new plan includes a proposed exchange with the U.S. Forest Service of 207 acres of Village-owned land around the Alberta Park and lower half of the waterfall area, an area including wetlands and skiable terrain, for 207 acres northeast of Alberta Park with U.S. 160 frontage.

Jones stated that, if the land exchange process commences, and “if all things go great, we’re still looking at two years of going through this exchange process.”

The new land would then have to be re-platted and a new plan submitted to Mineral County, Jones said.

“We can’t start a new development on land we don’t have,” Jones said.

Jones stated that land exchanges can take place either legislatively, through passing a bill in Congress, or administratively through the U.S. Forest Service, however, the developers are currently working on both avenues in order to ensure the exchange takes place in a timely manner and, said Jones, to allow for better public input.

U.S. Rep. John Salazar has abstained from making a final decision on whether or not to sponsor a bill until members of nearby communities have heard about the plan and commented on it, said the congressman’s’ aide John Whitney, who urged the public to speak to elected officials about the proposed swap.

If the exchange were completed solely through legislative process, public and environmental review processes would largely come into play after the bill has passed, Jones said.

By pursuing the administrative track at the same time, Jones said developers intend to assure that legislation not be passed before the environmental review process is complete.

Once the land exchange process commences, Jones said that it is out of the hands of the developers.

According to Jones, another advantage for the developers in taking the dual-track approach to the land swap is that, while lawsuits can be filed challenging the decisions of the USFS during the administrative process, “unreasonable” lawsuits meant to slow or stop the process would have less impact because the congressional track could continue moving forward.

Jones also noted that with the administrative process, the USFS will hold public meetings in Creede, Del Norte and Pagosa Springs.

As explained during a later question and answer period, if the land values are deemed uneven, the party with the property of lesser value would be able to either lessen the amount of land in the exchange or, if the value difference is 25 percent or less, the value can be made up with a payment or by purchasing an inholding that is currently private land and donating it to the USFS.

Village plans

If the land exchange succeeds, the plan calls for 492 units in phase one with growth tied to the capacity of the ski area, meaning if the ski area never expands, the Village development would remain at its initial size.

“What I’ve tried to do over the last year is come up with what I hope is a much better plan, a much friendlier plan, a much more responsible plan, but I realize there are some that don’t want any development,” Jones said.

There are currently eight additional phases in the conceptual design tied to ski area growth.

Jones said Wolf Creek owner Davey Pitcher told him that, currently, the ski area could accommodate up to 2,000 new skiers.

The 492 units proposed for phase one include a smaller hotel, condo and townhome units, single family units and 50,000 square feet of commercial space, all centered around a pedestrian village.

“Do you want to throw that out the window and reject that and see what happens with the original plan?” he asked.

The original, larger plan on file with Mineral County consists of 2,172 units in phase one, which Jones said equated to roughly 2,800 doors (three hotel rooms make up one unit). The plan includes a larger hotel, more condos and townhomes, fewer single-family homesites, and 135,000 square feet of commercial space.

“I don’t like talking about the original plan. I’m biased. I wasn’t part of the original plan. I came up with the new plan and I like the new plan better,” Jones said, adding that he had yet to speak to anyone who didn’t think the new plan was better than the old one.

Despite the court battles and judicial rulings, the original plan is viable and only needs proper highway access to move forward, he said.

Public questions

In a format new to the public meetings, questions were submitted via cards and read aloud by Archuleta County Special Projects Manager Karen Kohake.

The format did not sit well with some in attendance.

“Why is this a one-sided presentation and why is the public being muzzled with question cards?” Lesli Allison asked.

“I was asked to give this presentation to provide information. I think that if others wish to provide their own presentation, that’s something to talk to your local elected officials about, and that’s up to them,” Jones said.

Similarly, Ellie Whiting asked when the community would get a balanced counterpoint on the project.

Jones was adamant that he has not avoided hearing countering opinions and that, after talking to Pitcher about a new plan, one of the first groups he spoke with was Colorado Wild, which had launched a lawsuit against the development.

“I have not avoided the inclusion of people with countering opinions about this. I never have.”

Jones also stressed that, while he’s willing to work with people who are concerned with the density of the development, it “doesn’t work” for them to say a better alternative is zero units.

A few questions later, Ray Finney stated that a plan C could be no development and asked if a plan D could be something smaller, such as a 70-acre, 300-unit plan.

“This is the first time someone actually threw a number out and, you know, sure. What I need is I need to know what are you proposing and go out and do a business analysis on it to see if it works,” Jones said, adding that any plan would have to work on the initial concept of where the ski area is now and what would work if it never expanded.

Some also made it clear through their questions that they viewed the presentation as a threat forcing people to either support the new plan or be faced with the village in its original, larger form.

Pagosa Springs resident Cindy Gustafson asked, “Is this some sort of threat, that if we don’t accept plan B, the new plan, we will have to accept the original plan?”

Jones responded that, were the land exchange to fail, he was unsure if the original plan would be amended or if it would move forward in its original form.

Criticism of the process aside, many questions involved specifics of the plan, its impact and how to alleviate that impact.

Rick Bellis asked if Billy Jo “Red” McCombs would be willing to commit to an inter-jurisdictional tax district or another way to financially mitigate the impact on Pagosa Springs, Archuleta County and the other communities that will potentially be affected by the Village.

Jones said there have been discussions about the possibility of self-imposed taxes and that it is still an unknown, saying he had, in the week prior to the meeting, discussed with McCombs the need to do something — since more than Mineral County would be affected by the development.

Along the same lines, Janet Santopietro asked about the possibility of an intergovernmental agreement to lessen the impact, to which Jones said that the jurisdiction of the Village lies firmly in Mineral County, but that there has been some dialogue between the counties.

Others submitted questions concerning impact on surrounding communities, economic viability and environmental impact that went unanswered because no new studies of impact or economic feasibility, or more specific plans for the new Village plan exist, according to Jones.

In response to questions concerning job development, Jones did offer that this project would initially offer retention jobs such as engineering, then construction jobs, would offer employment in areas such as marketing and would evolve to encompass “different trades over time, as we progress.”

Many questions took an environmental turn.

Area resident Bill Becktold asked how water would be provided to the development. Jones said there are currently three water intakes on Village property and that, while storage would be a necessity, “there is more than enough water up there.”

The youngest questioner of the evening appeared to be 13-year-old Toby Sutton, who asked, “If we did the Village, how would we use energy and how would we keep the pipes from freezing? How much energy will this use in one year?”

“We don’t have all of that solved,” Jones responded, noting that there is currently three-phase power to the mountain and that developers would have to study with consultants to determine the best way to provide sufficient power to the development.

“I fully intend to look at all of the alternative energy sources that we could utilize up there,” he said.

Colton Polezynski similarly asked about the plans for renewable energy, to which Jones said that the land exchange would allow the Village to move to an area that receives more direct sunlight, which could be used for solar energy. He said other means of renewable energy are being looked at.

In response to Finney’s question about the Village’s potential impact on wildlife migration routes, Jones said that a wildlife corridor would be built into an underpass on U.S. 160 and that other corridors would be built throughout the Village if necessary to counter problems with animals.

Jones said in a Wednesday phone interview that he knows there are a number of people opposed to any development on Wolf Creek, but that he hopes the public has received enough information to make an informed decision about which Village plan is better, and to talk to their elected officials.

“I think we’re to the point where there’s enough information out there,” Jones said, adding, “At some point a decision has to be made.”

Jones said he does not plan any more public forums; however, he will still continue to meet with interested groups.