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Council considers Village stance

Meeting twice in as many weeks to consider drafting a letter of support for a proposed legislative land swap for the Village at Wolf Creek, the Pagosa Springs Town Council stalled just shy of going forward with the letter, choosing instead to wait to meet with the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners.

Having repealed a resolution from 2004 (stating opposition to a proposed Village at Wolf Creek development), council indicated a shift in its opinion of the plan during its Nov. 19 mid-month meeting. Nevertheless, council stopped short of sending a letter of support for the proposed land exchange (necessary for the project) during that meeting.

Several factors appear to have influenced council’s apparent about face: an economy very different from conditions in 2004, a revised, scaled-back plan proposed by the developer and, as council member Stan Holt pointed out during the meeting, “The makeup of the council today has changed dramatically from what it was then.”

Indeed. Not only has the current council reversed the town’s stand on the Village at Wolf Creek, it also scrapped a portion of the Land Use and Development Code that regulated large-format retail (big box) development last summer — regulations put in place by the same council that drafted the opposition resolution (that ordinance is currently in abeyance pending a possible referendum). In pursuit of economic development, the current town council appears vastly different in philosophy from their 2004 predecessors.

While it is unknown if the current council would support the Village plan as proposed in 2004, the revised development plan appears to have been met with approval by some council members and other residents in the area.

The new plan proposes a scaled back project (from 2,172 units planned in the original plan down to 491 units in phase one of the revision) and Village point men say the revision, coupled with a proposed land exchange, will allow for development compatible with the ski area and a softer environmental impact on the Alberta Park area. They also say that development, of some kind, is imminent.

Development spokesman Clint Jones said wetlands make up about half the property they want to give up, and aside from remedying wetlands issues, the exchange would add skiable terrain to the area and may ease CDOT’s concerns regarding the Village access on U.S. 160. Jones also said a successful exchange will allow him to build a “quaint, pedestrian-style village that is compatible with the ski area,” as opposed to the oft-criticized 10,000-person mountain metropolis plan currently on file with Mineral County.

According to Jones, he embarked on two land exchange tracks — a legislative track, which requires the sponsorship of Congressman John Salazar and would ultimately require congressional action — and an administrative track through the Forest Service land exchange process. In either case, Jones previously said, “Whether we go through Congress or the Forest Service, we will go through a full public process.”

In an earlier conversation with SUN staff, Jones explained that the congressional track may provide greater predictability over the outcome of the land exchange and the success of the Village project in general. However, it is the proposed direction of the approval track that continues to give council pause in drafting a letter of support for the exchange.

A letter of support for the revised development plan would be a de facto endorsement of the legislative process. While the developers have solicited both council and the BoCC for letters of support endorsing the land exchange — to be forwarded to Salazar’s office— those letters, by their nature, would also endorse pursuit of the legislative process.

There is an important distinction between the two processes. An administrative approval process through the USFS dictates both the environmental impact studies (EIS) and public input prior to approval. There are no such requirements in the legislative process. In fact, the U.S. Congress could approve the land exchange, giving the green light for development, without considering an EIS or hearing public input.

In considering the letter, council member Shari Pierce said, “I think we can put some conditions on this,” referring to providing support for the land exchange but stipulating an administrative approval process.

Asking County Administrator Greg Schulte how the BoCC had decided to proceed with a request for a support letter, council heard that Archuleta County had recently held a joint meeting with the boards of two other counties. “The main outcome of that meeting,” Schulte said, “was to let Mineral County know that Archuleta County and Rio Grande County have an interest in this.”

While the proposed development would reside within Mineral County, both Archuleta and Rio Grande counties would likely experience impacts from the development.

Schulte went on to say that the BoCC had hired a consultant to examine potential economic impact from the development on Archuleta County. “We anticipate having a public position by December 8,” Schulte said.

Debating the merits of waiting on the county’s findings before deciding on whether or not to draft a letter of support for the land exchange, council was chastised by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon over the deference given to consultants.

“Sometimes, I think we need to take the bull by the horns,” Aragon said. “And I can guarantee you this: that some outsider, some consultant, will not have the sensitivity that us residents have.”

Aragon’s concern seemed to be that the development would provide local jobs, as well as other economic benefits. “I don’t even want to think about us bleeding to death,” he said.

With that said, Aragon concisely articulated the primary reason council had changed its tune regarding support for a proposed development at Wolf Creek: The economy.

And while a revised plan for the development has appeared to also contribute to council’s change of heart, that revision appears to be a minor issue in the shadow of economic exigency. While the revised plan promises a scaled-back development, the plan carries no guarantees and there would be nothing to prevent the developers from pursuing a 10,000-person plus project.

Council member Darrel Cotton made a motion to draft a letter of support for the land exchange, stipulating a parallel legislative and administrative process. However, since the council’s agenda did not specify drafting a letter (the agenda item was for repealing Resolution 2004-15), Cotton was forced to withdraw the motion.

As Southwest Land Alliance Executive Director Michael Whiting pointed out, “I think there are a lot of residents out there who want a voice in this before you decide to draft a letter of support. It’s not that I don’t support (the Village at Wolf Creek) ... what I support is having all the facts.”

Despite Aragon’s advocacy for support, council appeared to concur with Whiting and agreed to wait until the county reported findings from their consultant.

Not two weeks later, however, council appeared to backtrack once again as the matter made an 11th hour appearance on the agenda for Tuesday’s council meeting. Indeed, in a brief session, the majority of discussion was dedicated to whether or not to draft the letter.

With no consensus among the council regarding the proposed exchange, except that they desired the developers to pursue an administrative process of acceptance along with a legislative process, council continued to equivocate over drafting a letter of support. In fact, no less than four revised motions were made to merely request a draft of a letter, all with minimum direction given to Town Manager David Mitchem on how to proceed.

Cotton, a supporter of the project, put forth all of the motions, revising each to suit the whims of council. “If we’re going to sit as a council and talk about economic development and then turn around and oppose a development in another county, then we’re talking out of both sides of our mouth,” he said.

Other members of council were not convinced that economic development was assured by the project, however. Still wanting to hear what a county-hired consultant had delivered as far as impacts to the Pagosa area, Pierce said, “I talked to Commissioner (Bob) Moomaw and he asked if we could have a joint meeting December 10 to form a unified message.”

Pierce’s suggestion did not seem unreasonable. Council member Stan Holt said, “I talked to John Whitney, John Salazar’s representative in Durango … he said they have letters with conditions set forth. We should set forth our own conditions, I think.”

Conceding to the demands of Pierce and Holt, Cotton put forth a motion to direct Mitchem to draft a letter in support for a land exchange with the condition that both administrative and legislative tracks are pursued, along with a condition that an EIS be completed prior to initiating any legislative track.

According to earlier statements made by Jones, an EIS would take about a year, with a legislative approval of a land exchange requiring another two years.

Speaking to council, Whiting said, “The legislative process does not guarantee an EIS or an economic impact study … it’s a government process and not a public process … you need to be clear that the distinction is not between the old project and the new project but between the legislative and administrative process.”

Local support for the exchange seemed mixed. Jann Pitcher, speaking for the Board of Realtors, said that the board supported the legislative process. Conversely, Juanalee Park said that the Archuleta County Democratic Party had voted last week to support the administrative process.

Cotton’s motion, revised to include a parallel process, passed, with only Holt opposing.

However, that letter is contingent on findings presented to the county, due to be released at a Dec. 8 meeting. Furthermore, council agreed to meet with the county on Dec. 10 for a joint meeting to draft a “unified statement,” concerning the Village development.

jim@pagosasun.com