Red McCombs runs into a roadblock

The opposition has celebrated another significant victory in the fight to block the Village at Wolf Creek development. Last Friday, District Court Judge John Kuenhold threw out Mineral County’s approval of the controversial development proposed next to, but not affiliated with, the Wolf Creek Ski Area.

A Texas development company, funded by former Minnesota Vikings owner and Clear Channel Radio baron Red McCombs, has proposed the massive Village at Wolf Creek. The Rio Grande National Forest is studying a proposal by McCombs to build 2,172 housing units and 222,100 square feet of commercial space on 287.5 acres just east of Wolf Creek Pass and at the base of the Alberta chairlift. As part of the plan, 12 restaurants, several hotels and a convention center also would be built on the meadow.

The Friends of Wolf Creek and Colorado Wild, two groups opposing the development, have consistently charged that McCombs and his development partner, Bob Honts, have never secured year-round access to the parcel they wish to develop. Last week, Judge Kuenhold agreed, ruling that Mineral County’s “decision to abandon a requirement for meaningful year-round access was arbitrary and capricious.” According to the court order, McCombs must first gain genuine approval from the Forest Service and Colorado Department of Transportation before returning to the Mineral County Commission for another round of review.

Jeff Berman, director of the Friends of Wolf Creek campaign, commented that McCombs and Honts will have a long difficult road ahead. “It will be a long, arduous and very uncertain process for the developer to gain access approvals for this massive development,” he said. “Even with numerous likely impacts on local communities, traffic, wildlife, air quality, water quality, water supply, valley agriculture and recreation, the developer wants the public to pay for highway upgrades needed to accommodate huge projected increases in traffic.”

According to Colorado Wild, Forest Service documents recently released under court order reveal collusion between the federal agency and the Village at Wolf Creek. The group alleges that McCombs’ Washington D.C. lobbyist Steve Quarles actually authored approval for seasonal access to the proposed village. The Forest Service was required to release all internal documents related to the proposed village by Oct. 7. Colorado Wild recently agreed to allow the agency an extension through Nov. 11 but only on the condition that the Forest Service’s environmental impact statement (EIS) for access to the proposed development not be published until Nov. 28.


9-R slips up on its ballot measure  

Durango School District 9-R has miscalculated a school property tax measure which appears on the Nov. 1 ballot, underestimating the amount of tax a La Plata County homeowner would pay by more than 10 times. The new tax is intended to help the district raise more than $500,000 each year to ease transportation costs.

Actual cost of the new tax is now expected to be about $5.40 cents per year for a home worth $300,000. Earlier estimates placed the total increase at 41 cents per year. The significant discrepancy resulted from earlier tax-rate calculations based on lower enrollment, a change in district-wide assessed value and a lower interest rate.

“We inadvertently mixed apples and oranges, and over time, it became part of our information packet about the transportation override,” explained Deb Uroda, 9-R director of public information. “No one caught the discrepancy until we recalculated the mill levy with our latest information. We mistakenly calculated and published the total tax impact of all those changes rather than the tax impact of the override by itself.”

Uroda stressed that the miscalculations were not deliberate and that the district is doing its best to circulate the correct information prior to Election Day. However, this year’s election is by mail ballot and many county voters have already voted.

“It is our intent to publish the new figures as widely as possible so that voters have an accurate understanding of their school district taxes,” she said.

Natural gas prices go through roof

The winter of 2005-06 is shaping up to be a costly one for La Plata County residents. Atmos Energy Corp. announced last week that local bills for natural gas are expected to go up by 52 percent. The company credited hurricanes Katrina and Rita, already high demand for natural gas and tight supplies of domestic natural gas.

“Reliable natural gas service for our customers is our top priority, and we expect natural gas supplies will be adequate again this winter to meet our customers’ needs,” said Gary Schlessman, president of Atmos Energy’s Colorado-Kansas Division. “Gas prices, though, will be much higher than last winter, and we are quite concerned about their effect on our customers.”

According to Atmos, hurricanes Katrina and Rita disrupted about 15 percent of the country’s natural gas production, which was already tight because of growing demands from power plants and other users. Atmos Energy will file with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for the 52 percent increase next week and expects easy approval. The company stressed that it is not engaged in any form of price gouging.

“Customers pay only what Atmos Energy has already paid for natural gas – and not a penny more,” added Schlessman. “We buy the gas on behalf of customers. We simply pass the cost of the gas on to our customers with no markup.”

Schlessman suggested that increased energy exploration could be one answer to the problem. “What consumers need now is for Congress to permit exploration for gas from untapped new areas, such as the Outer Continental Shelf, offshore Florida and California, and federal lands in the West. Large discoveries of gas in these areas could lower gas prices,” he concluded.


Fight against access fee continues

A Senate subcommittee will be taking a hard look at new fees on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands next week. On Oct. 26, the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests will hold an oversight hearing on The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, which opponents have coined the Recreation Access Tax, or RAT.

The act gives the Forest Service and BLM permanent authority to charge fees for access to day-use sites that provide certain minimum amenities and was adopted in December of last year.

Interestingly, the Western Slope No Fee Coalition has undertaken a nationwide survey of the actual implementation of the RAT. Of particular concern to the group are a large number of fee trailheads with little or no improvements, where the BLM and Forest Service are effectively charging for backcountry access and breaking the law. The group hopes the subcommittee will identify this and other abuses when it holds its oversight hearing. “We are very pleased that subcommittee has decided to take a look at how this law is being implemented on the ground,” said Robert Funkhouser, president of the No Fee Coalition. “As the Forest Service and BLM continue to limit recreational opportunities on our public lands, it is imperative that the public retains their ownership and right to use these lands. The use of Forest Service- and BLM-managed lands is a right, not a privilege.”

Funkhouser charged that the RAT is supposed to limit day-use fees to only developed sites that have improved parking areas, permanent toilets, picnic tables, permanent trash containers, interpretive displays and security services. On the San Juan National Forest, the fee is in place only at the Anasazi Heritage Center.


More 80-acre well spacing in works

The push by oil and gas companies to double the number of wells in La Plata County continues this week. Samson Resources Co. is seeking a memorandum of understanding with La Plata County to have 80-acre well spacing in certain areas of the Ignacio Blanco field. The Board of County Commissioners approved a similar MOU with BP earlier this summer, enabling that company to double its wells in exchange for certain concessions.

The commissioners will hold a hearing on Mon., Oct. 24, to receive public comment on the proposed MOU at 10: 30 a.m. at the La Plata County Courthouse. Key issues addressed in the draft include: directional drilling from existing well pads; limiting pad size; road impacts and road impact fees; air quality and electrification; water quality; and plugged and abandoned wells.

A copy of the draft is available by contacting the La Plata County Community Development Department, 382-6263.  

- compiled by Will Sands


In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows