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No ‘Village’ letter from Pagosa

Developers for the proposed Village at Wolf Creek will not have a letter of support from the Pagosa Springs Town Council following a decision by council at its December mid-month meeting last Thursday.

The letter, had it been accepted by council, would have gone to Rep. John Salazar and would have signaled support for a proposed land exchange between Village at Wolf Creek developers and the U.S. Forest Service.

As reported in last week’s edition of The SUN, the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners decided to draft a letter of support (with conditions) for the so-called Plan B development proposal for the Village at Wolf Creek. Speaking before council during a Dec. 15 special meeting, Archuleta County Attorney Todd Starr presented the county’s position, with the hope that council would join the BoCC in providing a unified statement of support.

Following Starr’s presentation, council directed Town Manager David Mitchem to draft a letter, representing the town’s position regarding the proposed land exchange — predicated as part of Plan B — and for the project itself.

Two days later, council declined to send a support letter with a 4-3 vote (with Mayor Ross Aragon and council members Jerry Jackson and Darrell Cotton voting in favor of a letter of support).

Prior to the vote, it was unclear what council would decide. In fact, while discussing the matter, council member Don Volger made it clear that he was unsure how he would vote, preferring to hear various points of view from the other council members.

Apparently unaware of how council’s vote would go, council member Stan Holt started the discussion, saying, “I know I’m in the minority among the members of council,” as he laid out the differences between the legislative and administrative processes for a land exchange approval.

As Holt explained, while the administrative process would require a full environmental impact study, “Under the legislative process, the EIS is just a suggestion. If they go with the administrative process, they have to do an EIS, they have to deal with the Forest Service and CDOT.”

“They (the developers) have done anything to avoid the administrative process.”

“What do we have from McCombs?” Holt continued, “Nada. We don’t have any assurances or any idea of how much of a build out there will be.”

“I agree with Stan,” said council member Shari Pierce. “I was disappointed with what was produced (i.e. Mitchem’s letter). I just cannot support this letter as it stands.”

The letter presented by Mitchem stated, “On December 1, 2009, the Pagosa Springs Town Council, by majority, voted to support simultaneous legislative and administrative review of the proposed Village at Wolf Creek land exchange and to support the completion of a full environmental impact study prior to final legislative action.”

Noticeably missing in the letter were demands for a completed EIS prior to pursuit of a legislative track, assurances for offsetting amenity and infrastructure demands to the area, and assurances that the project’s buildout would be limited to a significantly scaled-back project. It was those missing elements in the letter that appeared to trouble members of the council.

Earlier this year, development spokesman Clint Jones presented Plan B before council, a revised, scaled-back project (from 2,172 units proposed in the original plan to a more modest proposal of 491 units). While council appeared impressed with the Plan B proposal, it had not committed to support for the plan.

Sans support, Jones said that development, of some kind, is imminent and should a proposed land exchange fall through, the developers would pursue their original plan.

Latching onto the prospect that developers might pursue the original plan, development supporters on the council explained why they were behind sending the letter.

“Plan B is better,” Cotton said, “ecologically, economically ... I think our local businesses can compete. I think we’re selling them short. I don’t think we should move with a protectionist position.”

Jackson added, “In my belief, a Village at Wolf Creek would create a more widely known ski area. I can’t help but think it will create more commerce.”

Jackson also stated that he’d felt a Plan B option was more acceptable than the prospect of the developers moving forward with original project plans.

However, Holt said he believed that the veiled threats made by the developers were empty of any substance, pointing out that the project was far from shovel ready.

“Plan A is its infancy,” Holt said. “They’ve sold it like it’s a done deal but it’s not like they can go up there and start turning dirt if they go with Plan A.”

Holt was correct. On the boards since the early 1980s, the original plan has been fraught with legal wrangling and lawsuits. As late as February 2009, the USFS cancelled plans for a new EIS after developers failed to provide specific plans for the project. Previously, U.S. District Court Judge John Kane ruled in late 2007 that a prior EIS was illegal due to the developer’s influence in the process and halted proposed road construction slated for the following year.

Having exposed the threat of Plan A as an apparent red herring, Holt narrowed the argument to assumed economic development benefits (held by project supporters) and the seeming unwillingness of the developers to answer council’s questions. And with council split between Aragon, Cotton and Jackson supporting the letter, Holt, Pierce and council member Mark Weiler opposed, Volger was left with the deciding vote.

“I went through 60-70 e-mails,” he said, “and only a handful were supportive (of the letter) ... of those, two were from organizations and, although I didn’t do the research, most of the rest weren’t even from town residents,” implying that, for the most part, e-mails stating support for the letter were not representative of Volger’s constituency.

“On this one, I am really struggling,” he said. “Sitting here, right here, right now, I don’t know.”

In response to Volger asking council to further explain their positions, Aragon said, “I think it was in 1993 or 1994, there was a quote and it was that, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ and that’s what this is about.”

Just how much economic development would result from the project was never made clear, however. Certainly, a few local trades would benefit during the construction phase (provided developers choose to hire local labor), but Pierce argued that local businesses were far from assured that Village residents would do their shopping in Pagosa Springs. Weiler echoed those sentiments, as well.

“I want to be supportive of growth here,” he said, “but the developer and his representatives have a history of deceit, with the community, with us. And I’m not encouraged by the lack of on-the-record responses to what they would do.”

Stating that his vote would be the first time he would vote against potential economic development, Weiler added that he had personally attempted to contact McCombs four times and none of his calls had been answered.

Pierce also said she had sent Jones 14 questions regarding the development and that, while Jones had talked with her at length, he had not answered any of those questions.

It was then that Weiler made a motion to not send the letter; Holt immediately seconded the motion.

However, Village supporters were not finished with their arguments for sending the letter. “It ain’t going to hurt us,” said Cotton. “I see us becoming protectionist. If we’re going to get a development on the hill, why not ask for the best one? I just think we’re sending the wrong message by not moving forward.”

“The people who live in this county, that we represent,” added Jackson, “want economic development.”

Finally, Aragon pointed to the current economic climate in town, saying, “If you don’t think it is bad here economically, go downstairs. Go to Social Services. Go to the churches. That’ll give you a rude awakening, because it’s to the point of ... it’s critical. This is not a joke.”

“I’ll stand by what I said,” the mayor continued, “that if there’s a chance for economic development, I think we need to try.”

Arguments of potential economic benefit were inadequate in swaying opponents of the letter, members of the council who made the case that a Village at Wolf Creek did not necessarily ensure economic benefit to the town and could, conversely, have a negative impact on the local economy.

Signaling how the vote would go, Volger concluded, “There are too many questions, too few assurances.”

With a roll-call vote (requested by Weiler), the council made the decision to not send the letter.

Reacting to council’s decision, Jones said in a phone interview, “I don’t see the vote as not being supportive of the new plan ... I think there’s been progress made. Certainly it’s disappointing, but all the other letters of support from municipalities and counties thrills us. I’m glad we have support from Archuleta County.”

What, if any, signal has been sent by the town’s refusal to provide a letter to Salazar remains to be seen. Nor is it known how a lack of that letter will affect Salazar’s decision on whether or not to proceed with a proposed land exchange.