Wolf Creek embroiled in legal fight

Lawsuits are flying around Wolf Creek Ski Area. Three separate suits are currently contesting the Village at Wolf Creek, a massive development plan for 2,172 new units and more than 220,000 square feet of commercial space, including 12 new restaurants and several hotels. The development has been pitched for the base of the no-frills, family-run ski area.

The plan is being forwarded by a Texas development company, funded by Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs, and is in no way connected to the existing ski operation. The group has proposed developing 287.5 acres just east of Wolf Creek Pass and at the base of the Alberta Lift, land that was acquired during a suspicious 1989 land exchange with the Forest Service. Immediately after its announcement, opposition to The Village at Wolf Creek was off the charts.

Riding this wave, Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council sued Mineral County late last week in district court. Wolf Creek Ski Area filed a similar suit, contesting the county's quick approval of the Village at Wolf Creek's development plan.

Chris Canaly, executive director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, commented, "In fast-tracking approval for a city the size of Alamosa at Wolf Creek Ski Area, Mineral County failed to adhere to both state law and its own regulations, not to mention the public trust.Unfortunately, we had to take this step to ensure that public concerns are heard and laws protecting the public are upheld."

In recent months,the Mineral County Board of Commissioners approved various documents that together constitute Final Approval for the Village at Wolf Creek.In addition to 2,172 units and 222,000 square feet of commercial space, more than 4,000 parking spaces are proposed for the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area's Alberta Lift.

"The board granted this approval even though the developer has failed to demonstrate access to the state highway system, major questions have been raised about the adequacy of water supplies, and the development threatens rare fen wetlands - all violations of state law or Mineral County's own regulations," said Anna Ulrich, attorney for Colorado Wild and the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, who added that the board has deliberately limited public comment and failed to publish notice of two meetings.

In order to begin construction of the village, McCombs must gain approval from the Forest Service as well as Mineral County. A third lawsuit was filed by Colorado Wild against the Rio Grande National Forest in early October, alleging breach of contract. Colorado Wild noted that the Forest Service signed a 1999 agreement with Colorado Wild, which required that a complete environmental analysis be completed before McCombs was granted public access.

Fee opponents call for rider removal

New legislation that would require bikers, hikers and all users of public lands to carry a "passport" when they recreate has also created an outcry of public opposition. An Ohio congressman has successfully pushed a measure through Congress that would require members of the public to purchase an "America the Beautiful" pass to recreate on all land managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation. Groups including the Western Slope No Fee Coaltion are putting pressure on Congress to remove the measure.

Sen. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, succeeded in attaching his bill as a rider to the giant Omnibus Appropriations Bill recently enacted in the lame duck session of Congress. The bill was never passed by the House and was never introduced, given a hearing or voted upon in the Senate. Omnibus bills are considered "must pass" legislation because of the potential for a government shutdown.

However, the 3,000-plus page omnibus spending bill that was supposed to have been completed before Thanksgiving has encountered an unexpected setback. The House of Representatives must be called back for a second lame duck session on Dec. 6 so the House can re-visit the bill.

Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, commented, "Using an omnibus rider to fundamentally change the way public lands are funded and managed is a disgrace to the democratic process. This is lawmaking at its worst, and Ralph Regula would be responsible for the first tax increase of the Bush administration."

Unless deleted from the final omnibus measure, Regula's bill will go into effect immediately. Its key provisions include permanent recreation fee authority for public lands. Failure to carry a passport would be a criminal offense punishable by up to $5,000 and/or six months in jail.

DMR Benefit Day raises $23,180

Fresh snow and a good cause brought droves of skiers and snowboarders to Purgatory Mountain on Benefit Day, Nov. 24. In spite of last-minute uncertainty over whether the annual event would happen, Benefit Day raised $23,180 for the Durango Discovery Museum, an energy and science museumplanned for Durango's 1893 Power Plant.

More than 2,300 skiers and snowboarders took advantage of $10 lift tickets and supported the efforts to renovate the Power Plant, located off Camino del Rio. The total from this year's Benefit Day was the fourth largest donation since the event began.

"We can't thank the community enough for their fantastic turnout and support of the vision for the historic Power House and riverfront," said Discovery Museum Project Manager Jeff Vierling. "Durango Mountain Resort's generous selection of the museum for Benefit Day has kicked off our capital fund drive with a bang."

DMR General Manager Bill Rock added, "The Discovery Museum's vision for a community center on the banks of the Animas will help shape downtown Durango for years to come, and we are thrilled to be a part of the effort."

The Power Plant is the oldest known remaining A/C plant in the world and is listed as one of Colorado Preservation Inc.'s "Most Endangered Places." Work is already under way to restore the roof and light monitors on the power house. The next phase will consist of removing the stucco and restoring the original brick, windows and towers, as well as starting work on a riverfront plaza.

Durango Mountain Resort has been hosting Benefit Day since 1991 and has donated almost $200,000 to local nonprofit organizations since the event's inception.

Long-awaited hearings announced

La Plata County is opening its controversial land-use revision to public review. The rules guiding development in the county underwent a major revision recently, and among the biggest criticisms is that the changes are being pushed through. However, the county is continuing to accept written comments on the revisions and has now announced three public hearings throughout the county

Nancy Lauro, the county's community development director, explained that the revisions are intended to improve the planning process for developers and enhance the quality of growth in the county for residents. Among other things, the revisions should help the county to require more public benefit from developments, including open space, clustering, affordable housing and amenities.

"The concern we had was that the regulations were difficult to use," Lauro said. "We wanted to improve the efficiency of the development review process and, as a result, the quality of development in La Plata County."

So far, the public has had the opportunity to offer only written comments on the draft. And many people have argued that the commissioners are trying to push its approval through before current commissioner Josh Joswick's term expires. In answer to these criticisms, the county has laid out a series of public hearings:

l Mon., Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School in Marvel.

l Tues., Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Los Pi`F1os Fire Department in Ignacio.

l Tues., Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. in the La Plata County Courthouse in Durango.

Meanwhile, the county will continue to accept written comments, and the draft can be viewed on the La Plata County web site at http://co.laplata.co.usunder the Community Development Department page. For more information, call the La Plata County Community Development Department at 382-6263

- compiled by Will Sands





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