Village Letter Flops at Town Council
Bill Hudson | 12/18/09
Mayor Ross Aragon, the father of Pagosa Springs, sat staring into the air with an empty expression on his face, reminding me of a man who’d just received news that his favorite horse had run away while he was not looking.

Aragon is normally business-like, and in firm control of the meetings over which he presides at the Pagosa Springs Town Hall.

The proceedings at yesterday’s noon Town Council meeting, however, had apparently left Aragon feeling lost and confused.  Continued...
town council pagosa springs
Town Council member Mark Weiler, far right, asks Town clerk April Hessman for a roll call vote, as (from left) mayor Ross Aragon, Shari Pierce and Stan Holt listen.
We had just heard Pagosa Springs Town Council members Darrel Cotton and Jerry Jackson urge the Council to approve a letter, supporting of a Forest Service land swap at the top of Wolf Creek Pass.  That letter had been written by Town manager David Mitchem, at the request of Council, and a copy now sat in front of the mayor and each Council member.

The letter, addressed to Congressman John Salazar, had been requested by billionaire developer B.J. “Red” McCombs and his representative Clint Jones — as a show of support for a mysterious new Village at Wolf Creek development that would “require” McCombs to exchange about 207 easement-tainted acres of his private land at the base of Wolf Creek Ski Area for an adjoining — and much more usable — 207 acres.

McCombs and Jones had been threatening the Town and County for several months, claiming that if they didn’t receive enough local support for their new “Plan B” they would proceed to build some form of their admittedly-less-profitable “Plan A” on the tainted parcel.

A letter of support for McCombs’ new “Plan B” swap would supposedly encourage Salazar to push a Congressional approval of the land exchange, thereby expediting the approval process — and possibly bypassing the normal EIS (Environmental Impact Study) process.

We had also heard Council members Shari Pierce and Stan Holt explain why they could not support the letter to Salazar.

We then heard Council member Don Volger give the conflicting reasons why he had not yet made up his mind.  At previous meetings, Volger had argued that the Council might want to wait until more information about McCombs’ project became available, before making a decision to support the Village land swap.

The count so far: two in favor, two against, one on the fence.

Then Aragon called on Council member Mark Weiler. 

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor.  I’d actually like to hear your opinion first, if I can,” Weiler responded.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Weiler’s views, but I will give him this: he has a keen sense of how to enhance the drama of a public meeting, and his deferral to the mayor certainly had that effect for me, personally.

Mayor Aragon then gave his appeal for approving the letter of support.

“I think in 1993 or ’94, there was a quote that was used politically,” Aragon began, “and it was: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’  And this is what it’s all about.” 

Aragon then argued that the Town didn’t need to know what McCombs was planning atop Wolf Creek Pass — any development at all was better than just sitting and waiting for the Pagosa Springs economy to revive of its own accord.  And the mayor felt it his duty to support the Village project, whatever it may become and whatever its effects.

The count: three in favor, two opposed, one on the fence.

Weiler then took his turn.

“Mr. Volger, I understand your conflict, because I have the same thing.  I want to be supportive of growth, here.  But the owner of this property has — 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.”

“I’m not encouraged at all.  And this has to be one of the first times I have ever voted against something promises economic development for our community.

“Mr. Mayor, I would like to ask that we have a roll call vote, so that we can each state our vote on whether or not to send the letter.  And only, on whether or not to send the letter.  Because I don’t have enough information to make a decision that’s good enough, as to what the impact of this would be on our community.

“And the only way I would ever support anything is if the impact study is done prior to any other review process, and that it’s part of the review process.  The economic impacts have to be part of the decision-making process.

“When I read Mr. Salazar’s comments yesterday in the Durango Herald, he said, ‘I’m conflicted, because what I’m looking for is consensus from the surrounding communities in support of this development.  And that’s what this letter says. ..

“So I am going to support Mr. Holt and Ms. Pierce, and I’d like to have a roll call vote, Mr. Mayor.  My motion is that we do not send this letter.”

Stan Holt seconded the motion.

The count: three opposed, three in favor, one on the fence.  And the person sitting on the fence, Don Volger, had previous made arguments very similar to the one we’d just heard from Mark Weiler.

Aragon looked a bit shaken.  As mayor of Pagosa Springs for 30 years, Aragon is used to having the Council on his side.  But that Council didn’t seem to be agreeing with him on this occasion.

“I’m going to have to open it up for public comment,” Aragon said in a rather unenthusiastic voice.

Only a few members of the audience stepped up to comment on the issue.  Perhaps the most cogent arguments were presented by Daily Post writer Glenn Walsh.

“I’m struck with kind of a roll reversal here, because I, too, am in support of Town development — and even in support of some specific projects.  But the role reversal I see is that, usually, the developer comes forth and the Town manager presents some specifics — tax revenues, investment, employment — and it’s the non-development people who present the generalities.  ‘Keep Pagosa Pagosa’ for example. …

“And in this case, I’m not opposed to the Village at Wolf Creek, and I can see how a nice 500 room luxury hotel, bringing people to the area, might be a benefit.  I don’t know that 10,000 bedrooms up there would be a benefit.

“But even people like me, who aren’t opposed, we have specific concerns.  Like infrastructure.  Are all the snow sheds and all the tunnels going to be on the other side of the pass?   If you want powder skiing, will you have to be on the other side of the pass?  How about lift ticket packages set aside for our hotels and companies?  What about our airport?  Is it going to be part of this development?

“These are specific questions that aren’t anti-development.”

Walsh asked about revenue sharing, and suggested that was a key issue to understand fully.

“The supporters of the Village, I feel right now, are engaging in generalities — generalities I support, like economic development and property rights — but the specifics just aren’t there.

“At the County meeting [on Tuesday] a lot of people were talking about ‘having a seat at the [negotiating] table.’ 

“And I asked, ‘Where is this table?’ And after I asked that question, it occurred to me — you know, we are at that table right now.  And it’s a big poker game, and in the middle of that table, there are a lot of chips.  And if we push all of those chips to Red McCombs, and if we push all of those chips to Mineral County — right now — you know, there’s not going to be a table.  The only table, that is going to be left for us, is like that little table at Thanksgiving, off in the corner of the room — where the kids get to sit. 

"While the adults are at the big table, and they carve the turkey and talk about serious things.

“I’m not opposed to economic development, or to a nice big resort up there, but I think we are at the table right now.  And that you guys have to play some tough poker.”

Council members Cotton and Jackson repeated their arguments in favor of sending the letter.  The mayor then compared asking for additional information about the proposed Village at Wolf Creek with Christopher Columbus asking advice about his upcoming trip to India. 

Then Volger announced that he now knew how he was going to vote. 

“I will support Mr. Weiler’s motion, not to send the letter.”

It didn’t look good for mayor Aragon’s team.  So Aragon took a third shot at getting his points across.

“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 — this is not a joke.”

Then in a awkward turn, the mayor asked, “So, does anyone want to conclude this?  Because I’m ready to.”

“We have a motion on the floor,” noted Pierce gently.  “Can we just call for a vote, then?”

“It’s up to you guys,” the mayor said weakly.

Of course, the Council was waiting for the mayor to call for the vote, as he has done so authoritatively for the past 30 years.  But he just sat there in silence.

Holt asked Town clerk April Hessman to read the motion aloud.

“Council member Weiler moved to not send the letter,” Hessman responded, reading from her computer screen.

After another ten seconds of silence, Aragon seemingly came back to life.

“Okay, all in favor, signify by saying aye.”

Weiler said, “I asked for a roll call vote, Mr. Mayor. Could you instruct April to call the roll and have a vote?”  Continued...
town council pagosa springs
Town Council members (from left) Don Volger, Jerry Jackson and Darrel Cotton wait through an awkward silence, wondering if mayor Aragon (far right) is going to call for a vote on Mark Weiler's motion.
Four in favor of not sending the letter.  Three opposed.

The Council had expressed its wish, apparently, to receive more information before making a final decision on the Village.  Or maybe this was the final decision?

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