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CO Congressman Blasts Proposed Village at Ski Area

Sat December 10, 2005 - West Edition
CEG



DENVER (AP) Democratic Congressman John Salazar has come out against an embattled proposal for a resort at the Wolf Creek ski area in southwestern Colorado, said he believed the project would do more harm than good.

Salazar, whose district includes the ski area near the Continental Divide, said he didn’t see how “a project of this scope and size can continue.”

Opponents of the Village at Wolf Creek welcomed Salazar’s statement, while the developers and supporters dismissed it as political posturing.

Texas billionaire Billy Joe “Red” McCombs, co-founder of media giant Clear Channel Communications, wants to build 222,100 sq. ft. (20,600 sq m) of commercial space and hotels and homes for up to 10,500 people at the base of the rustic Wolf Creek ski area.

After meeting with the developers and U.S. Forest Service, Salazar said he feared the resort could threaten wildlife and water quality and create traffic problems.

“I will not support a project that hurts the community I represent,” Salazar said.

His opposition comes as the Forest Service is preparing a final decision on whether to allow construction of a road across forest land to the approximately 300-acre (121 ha) private site. Rio Grande National Forest Spokesman Mike Blakeman said the final environmental impact statement likely won’t be released until January.

The $1-billion project is the object of several lawsuits by the operators of the ski area, the developers and environmental groups.

“We’re pleased that the congressman has come out officially opposed to this project,” said Jeff Berman of the Durango-based Colorado Wild, one of the groups that has sued. “It only stands to reason, as the project is completely unfeasible and will bring dramatic impacts to the values that Coloradans care about.”

The legal disputes aren’t slowing down plans and neither will Salazar’s opposition, said Bob Honts, president and chief executive of the company building the village.

“I think he’s posturing for the environmentalists,” said Honts, a Texas developer. “It will have zero effect on the Forest Service.”

Dusty Hicks, owner of a sporting goods store in South Fork, approximately 18 mi. from the ski area, said the area needs the jobs and economic growth that he believed the resort would bring.

“I want to try to build a future for my kids,” Hicks said.

He added that he didn’t understand how Salazar could oppose the ski village without being more involved in the debate.

“I wish if he’s going to make a statement, that he would at least come and talk to us,” Hicks said.

Nayyera Haq, Salazar’s spokeswoman, said the congressman has received numerous letters, phone calls and e-mails from constituents about Wolf Creek. She said he has met with area residents, developers and Forest Service officials, who submitted written answers to his questions.

Marilyn Hutchins of Pagosa Springs, who is part of a group called Friends of Wolf Creek that opposes the ski village, said she was surprised by Salazar’s statement after hearing him at a town meeting last month. She said he had indicated that it would be difficult to take a position because he also represents Mineral County, which approved plans for the resort.

“He’s not making a statement just to appease somebody else,” Hutchins said. “He has given this an awful lot of thought.”

Hutchins said she thinks that building such a huge development at higher than 10,000 ft. won’t work. She noted that it’s habitat for Canada lynx released by the Colorado Division of Wildlife since 1999 to restore the long-haired cat to the state.

Skiers and snowboarders also treasure Wolf Creek for its no-frills atmosphere, Hutchins said.

“I think it is the last ski area of its kind,” she said.

The ski area, run by the Pitcher family with a lease from the Forest Service, was once partners in the development, but the family withdrew because of the project’s size and its belief that McCombs was trying to circumvent environmental laws. Now the Wolf Creek Ski Corp., run by Davey Pitcher, has sued to clarify its obligations to the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, formed by McCombs and the late Charles Leavell of San Antonio.

Leavell-McCombs responded with a lawsuit demanding damages and expenses, claiming the Pitchers reneged on an agreement to support extending a road on the ski area to the private property.

Lawyers for the joint venture also have filed a motion asking a state district judge to reconsider his ruling in October that revoked Mineral County’s final approval of the building plans. Judge John Kuenhold said the county was wrong not to require the developers to have permanent access to the site.

The developers have used a Forest Service road closed part of the year because of snow up to 10 ft. deep. Kuenhold’s decision means they need approval from federal and state officials for adequate access to the site before again seeking final approval of the building plans.

Developer Honts said all that will be moot if the Forest Service approves construction of a permanent road.