Wilderness developer Tom Chapman is back

  • Three lots are for sale near the Treasure Vault Mill site on Cross Creek

    Allen Best

VAIL, Colo. - One of Colorado's best-known real estate speculators is back, but some say the deals he's offering ought to be turned down.

Tom Chapman has a history of buying private land in wilderness areas, threatening to build mansions, and then goading the U.S. Forest Service into buying him out or trading him valuable land elsewhere (HCN, 2/16/98). An initial outlay of $240,000 for 240 acres in the West Elk Wilderness reaped him land near Telluride that's now valued at more than $4 million.

Now, Chapman and his business partners are advertising trophy homes that could be built on former mining claims inside the Holy Cross Wilderness, south of Vail.

A glossy brochure mailed to real estate offices describes an $8.5 million, 9,156 square-foot log house planned for a former mine site on the flanks of Mount Jackson: "This stunning Aurora Residence will be without a doubt the most private residence in Colorado, perhaps in America. Yet it is only a short four-minute helicopter flight to the ski slopes of Vail or Beaver Creek."

The brochure also offers three building sites at the old Treasure Vault Mill, hard by the banks of Cross Creek, about 14 miles from Minturn, and a 3.5 bedroom "hut" near Fancy Pass. All houses include caretaker quarters.

How do you get there?

Jon Mulford, director of the Wilderness Land Trust, laughs as he reads the brochure. He doesn't discount Chapman's sales pitch entirely, but he sees it as a bluff to get the Forest Service to buy or trade for the land.

"Anybody who goes and shops the market for remote backcountry sites will find many that are comparable at much cheaper prices, and usually with better access," he says.

Larry Agneberg, a Realtor who saw the brochures, sees virtually no market for such property. Many people who visit and buy Vail-area homes want access to wilderness, but they also want more social life, he says.

Besides, he adds, if you run out of milk, "is there a place to land a helicopter next to 7-Eleven at 11 o'clock at night?"

Let Chapman try to sell the property, says Agneberg. "I don't like anybody to be held hostage, particularly the Forest Service, which is we taxpayers, the citizens of the United States."

In 1991, the Eagle County commissioners adopted zoning regulations for private land within wilderness areas. Though the regulations allow building, they make it substantially more difficult.

Bill Wood, ranger for the Holy Cross District, said property owners "have some rights to develop and enjoy the property, and if they come in we'll enter into a dialogue with them about how to meet their needs with the least amount of impact to the wilderness." He is unclear whether the Forest Service is obligated to provide road access to the Chapman parcels.

Andy Wiessner, a Vail resident who worked as a congressional staffer on several wilderness bills and who now works on land trades, says Chapman has no right to fly helicopters into the wilderness inholdings. The Wilderness Act of 1964 specified helicopter use would be allowed only in cases where they were used prior to wilderness designation.

"If I were in the Forest Service's shoes, I would deny him access," Wiessner said, adding that "reasonable and necessary" access should be limited to horses, mules, or foot travel.

Allen Best writes for the Vail/Beaver Creek Times as well as other papers in Colorado.

You can contact ...

* Jon Mulford, Wilderness Land Trust, 4060 Post Canyon Road, Hood River OR 97031 (541/386-9546);

* Tom Chapman, TDX Enterprises, P.O. Box 242, Montrose, CO 81402 (800/662-8632).

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