McCombs inches closer to dream

SOUTH FORK – Ronald Reagan was president and an 11-foot, 8-inch concrete wall divided Berlin when Texas businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs began efforts to develop a “village” near the base of the Wolf Creek.

It’s an open question whether McCombs, who is 87, will live long enough to see the project built. It’s also an open question whether the project should get built. It’s 20 minutes from South Fork, the closest town with just minimal services, and Pagosa Springs is 30 minutes away. The ski area itself has no commercial services outside of ski operations, and even then little more than burgers and fries.

But last week, McCombs cleared a key hurdle with a new land exchange that gives him highway access to his parcel, which is otherwise an island in national forest land.

The first major triumph for Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture was in 1986, when the U.S. Forest Service gave the enterprise 300 acres of land at the base of the ski area in exchange for lands elsewhere of comparable value. Those lands were added to the national forest.

But McCombs needed better year-round access, especially after the Pitcher family, which owns the ski area, got out of the partnership. The new land swap approved last week gives McCombs a reconfigured 325 acres, including land leading to U.S. Highway 160, but without problematic wetlands.

Rio Grande National Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas insisted that federal law required that they provide access to the inholding. “I believe this is the best decision to minimize disturbance to public land while meeting the agency’s legal obligation to provide access to the private property,” he said in a press release.

McCombs stills needs a permit from the state highway agency and possibly another wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Environmental groups may challenge the land swap itself.

Mineral County had approved previous plans but may also want to review the revised project. Janelle Kukuk, the county administrator, says it’s not yet clear what about the developers plan that may be different. “We don’t know how similar their current proposal is to the one that was under discussion several years ago,” he says. She and current county commissioners were not in office when the previous approval was given, so there would be fresh eyes.

At one time, the project planned 2,011 housing units. The project analyzed by the Forest Service calls for 500 units.

But Clint Jones, the project leader for McCombs, told The Denver Post his team is looking at the prospect of starting a little bit smaller for that initial phase.

“We want to have the ability to gradually move into the phasing of this project and try to find what the right niche is as we build units,” he said. “We expect the market to embrace the project, but it might take a little bit of time, and we don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves.”

Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The real estate project has long been hotly disputed by environmental groups in Colorado. They cite various problems, including impacts to Canada lynx habitat. Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, says “it appears” that her group and others will be seeking an injunction to block the land exchange.

Canaly describes the latest land exchange as an attempt by the Forest Service to try to “make a bad idea better.” She said she believes the Forest Service would rather face lawsuits by environmental groups than from McCombs.

The land exchange also illustrates a change in the Forest Service, says Jim Buickerood, public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He points to the approved expansion of the Crested Butte Ski Area onto Snodgrass Mountain in the 1980s. Owners of the ski area did nothing with the approval and, when the expansion was proposed again several years ago, the local community had changed its thinking – as had the Forest Service itself. Reviewing the geological instability of Snodgrass, the Forest Service said no.

McCombs does have deep pockets. In December, Forbes Magazine estimated his wealth at $1.85 billion. He made money in cars, energy and real estate. At one time he owned the Minnesota Vikings and also held the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets basketball franchises. He was co-founder of Clear Channel Communications.

McCombs was in the news in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had to pay steep penalties related to more than $45 million he tried to shield from taxes.

But the core issue here is whether an inholding at 10,000 feet that gets 485 inches of snow a year should be a real estate development. Canaly points out that McCombs was also involved in a different ski area project, this one at Cuchara, about 75 miles away on the eastern flanks of the Sangre de Cristo Range. More years than not, the now-abandoned Cuchara had too little snow. On the other hand, this site may have too much snow for real estate development. “I don’t think Red understands that,” says Canaly.

Too, the Village at Wolf Creek would essentially be a new town. Aspen, Telluride and a good many other mountain towns began that way, of course. But in the last several decades, real estate developments well away from established amenities, no matter how striking the scenery, have struggled.

See Teton County, Idaho, as a classic example. But for a more direct comparison, consider the Adam’s Rib ski area south of Eagle, formally proposed in 1972. Adam’s Rib intended to leverage recreation and real estate, but developer Fred Kummer, while enormously successful in building hotels and hospitals in major cities, could never make the ski area work. He dropped the idea in the late 1970s but continued on to build a golf course and real estate on the site. However, despite relative close proximity to Vail and I-70, memberships at the Adam’s Rib golf course languished. He recently sold his final stake.

Jumbo Glacier resort suffers a setback

INVERMERE, B.C. – Developers of the major new resort in British Columbia called Jumbo Glacier have suffered a setback. Owners say it’s minor, but opponents describe it as a more fundamental problem for Jumbo, a project in the making for several decades.

Jumbo Glacier, located west of Invermere, had begun building a day lodge and a service building in an area that was found to be in an avalanche zone. Developer Tommaso Oberti told Pique Newsmagazine that it’s a “very minor hiccup.” He said the avalanche mapping had been done differently in the 1990s, suggesting that current mapping procedures would not find the site a problem. As such, only an amendment will be needed.

David Reid, executive director of the West Kootenay Community Ecosociety, said the violation should mean the project’s demise. “I think that raises serious questions about their willingness and their ability to comply with the rest of the environmental certificate.”

The resort, notes Pique, has been billed as Canada’s first year-round ski resort. The plans call for up to 23 lifts and a ski village with more than 6,000 beds.

Park City mining era relic to be fixed

PARK CITY, Utah – Before it was a mountain resort, Park City was a silver-mining town. One relic of that history, the 85-foot-high head frame at the shaft of the Daly West Mine, collapsed in early May.

The Park City Record says city leaders intend to restore the head frame, as they believe it important to maintain the link to the mining economy that dominated Park City until the middle of the 20th century.

Bad season but better than 1976-77

PARK CITY, Utah – Reviewing the last ski season, Utah ski industry officials draw a parallel to the winter of 1976-77, the 20th century standard for a snow-less winter.

The snowfall this year was 41 percent of average, but skier days statewide fell only 4.9 percent, to 3.9 million skier-days. In comparison, snowfall was off by a comparable amount in 1976-77 but skier days fell 53 percent.

The difference? Thee was early-season snow this year but also advanced and broad snowmaking efforts, says Ski Utah, the statewide trade organization. In the 1970s, very few resorts in the West had snowmaking.

But artificial snow will go only so far. In Oregon, Mt. Bachelor ski area had hoped to stay open until Memorial Day, as it usually does, but it closed May 10. It was the earliest closing since 1976-77.

Colorado law revision may boost open space

VAIL – Vail municipal officials began assiduously sewing up dedicated open space in the 1970s, but the broader Eagle County didn’t get after open space preservation until the 1990s.

An official with the Eagle Valley Land Trust now says that donation of parcels for conservation easements will pick up, owing to a change in Colorado law. Before, landowners could get up to $375,000 in marketable tax credits to permanently remove development rights from their land. The new law, says Jim Daus, executive director of the local land trust, allows up to $1.5 million in tax credits.

Eagle County steps up on solar energy

EAGLE – Eagle County government, a jurisdiction that includes Vail and Beaver Creek, has purchased enough solar panels in a solar farm to offset about a third of the government’s annual electrical consumption.

In a press release, Eagle County said the investment will reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent.

To achieve this, the county government purchased 3,279 solar panels in an installation near Basalt called Sunnyside Ranch. The county expects to pay off its investment in 12 years.

New golf course really a golf “amenity”

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – You haven’t heard much about new golf courses lately. But a real estate development south of Steamboat Springs called Windwalker Ranch plans a nine-hole golf course.

Peter Patten, a land-use planner representing the ownership group that paid $17.65 million for the cattle ranch several years ago, told local planning commissioners that he prefers to refer to the course as a “golf amenity.” Despite nine holes, the course has just three fairway “complexes” and five shared greens on the 23 acres.

Cannabis in the news in ski towns

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Steamboat Springs has three stores that sell cannabis products, the lid established by elected officials last year, and nearly all City Council members have no interest in allowing more.

Steamboat Today reports that two of the existing cannabis operators told council members they like the status quo, too. The one dissenting council member, Sonja Macys, prefers letting the free market determine how many stores operate.

But the council in June will take up rules governing personal growing of cannabis plants, as authorized for personal consumption by the constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2012.

In Aspen, cannabis was in the news when a local community center scheduled classes in which participants were to create art while under the influence. But the Chabad Jewish Community Center told The Aspen Times the event has been cancelled.

The Times explained that the class would have been a twist on wine-and-art programs that have taken off around the country.

The balance between being a resort, a town

ASPEN – Politics is rarely a genteel pursuit in Aspen, where people wear their passions on their sleeves. Among the most passionate over the years has been Mick Ireland, a one-time newspaper reporter (and bus driver and dishwasher) who later served long tenures as a county commissioner and then as a City Council member.

Ireland was term-limited two years ago and announced he intended to actually make some money. He’s also a lawyer. But apparently he just couldn’t keep himself out of the fray. Ireland is in a run-off election June 2 for City Council. He promises that if elected, this time will surely be his last run.

There’s little of substance that separates Ireland from his opponent, Bert Myrin. Both see high-end development as a major threat to Aspen if not yoked to benefit the locals. Ireland has the longer track record, though. He’s been a big proponent of affordable housing and lives in a deed-restricted housing himself, as does about half of Aspen’s full-time residents.

“A town without babies, no matter how beautiful or famous or wealthy, has no claim to vitality,” he said at a recent forum.

Myrin, his opponent, had identified a council decision in 2012 – when Ireland was mayor –allowing expanded short-term vacation rentals as a major problem.

While Ireland has been thought by many to be brusque and perhaps polarizing, he can point to a long list of endorsements from other office holders, not all of whom have always agreed with him.

Rachel Richards, a current Pitkin County commissioner and former Aspen mayor, credits Ireland with understanding the fine balance that exists between “Aspen the community” and “Aspen the resort.”

– Allen Best

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