TELLURIDE – One week after he announced that his purchase of mining claims in the Upper Bear Creek Basin will affect public access to parts of popular backcountry ski and hiking routes there, the community remains uncertain about a controversial developer’s plans for his latest acquisitions.
“We haven’t contacted him and he hasn’t contacted us,” said U.S. Forest Service Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza of Tom Chapman, whose Gold Hill Development Company purchased the Modena, Gertrude and Little Bessie Lodes that run west from Delta Bowl, as well as a half interest in the separate Euclid Avenue Lode in late March for $246,000, according to a public records search.
Dave Riley, chief executive officer of the Telluride Ski and Golf Co., which just a few weeks ago secured a one-year permit to operate guided ski and snowboard trips in Upper Bear Creek that the closure could affect said he had learned no new information.
Neither had government officials including Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser, outgoing Telluride Town Manager Frank Bell, nor Mountain Village Mayor Bob Delves.
“I haven’t heard a thing,” said Delves.
“I guess [Chapman’s] a bit of a ghost,” said Bell.
The GHDC maintains that the Modena, Gertrude and Little Bessie claims are contiguous and stated in a press release that it “intends to enforce its right to exclude people from its private property by using Colorado trespass law if necessary.”
As such, the company said its actions would affect ski routes including “Deep and Dangerous” and “Graveyard,” that travel through its claims.
“In a basin widely known and recognized for hazardous and dangerous skiing, with several recorded avalanche deaths, GHDC has full cause to exclude all parties from its private lands for reasons of liability for injury and/or accidental death,” the press release stated.
For “privacy and safety reasons” access to the claims will also be closed during the summer, affecting hiking on the Wasatch and East Fork of Bear Creek trails.
Maps on the San Miguel County website indicate that the parcels are not contiguous, suggesting that even if Chapman were to close his claims to public access people could still find ways between them.
However, a survey of the property done last October by Monadnock Mineral Services in Ouray for the previous owner, George Greenberg of Richardson, Texas (whom Chapman previously represented before buying the land from him) indicates that the claims form a continuous strip of land.
County Planning Director Mike Rozycki said that while the county website “provides a picture of what is generally going on,” the recent survey might be the best representation.
“I’m probably going to presume it will be more accurate than what we have,” he said.
Reached by telephone, GHDC’s Delta-based attorney, Aaron Clay, said on Wed. April 5 that he had no new information about his clients’ intentions for the property.
“They’re still developing their plans,” he said. “A lot depends on access and other issues that we haven’t really fleshed out yet.
“We’re just in that sort of diligence phase figuring out who the players are and who we need to talk to,” he said, citing both the Forest Service and Telski as known “players.”
Nonetheless, “They bought it and they want to assert their ownership,” he said, adding that the company plans to have the property line posted this summer in an attempt to prevent trespassing.
How it would be enforced is another matter.
“Obviously there’s a big enforcement problem,” Clay said.
While Chapman’s intentions may remain unclear at present, his modus operandi is to buy private in-holdings surrounded by or adjacent to public land, and then threatening to develop them in order to force lucrative land trades with the federal government.
For example, in 1984, while acting as a real estate agent for a rancher, Chapman brought a bulldozer into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument to start building infrastructure for a 132-home subdivision, according to The Denver Post.
The move eventually saw the National Park Service buy the 4,200-acre ranch at $510 an acre, although it had been appraised at $200 an acre.
Five years later Chapman, whom The Economist and the Denver Post have respectively described as “a modern hustler of the west” and “the buzzard of Colorado’s backcountry” blocked access to a treasured fishery on the Gunnison River near Delta by closing the ranch through which it was accessed. He later sold a corridor along the river to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for $400,0000.
In the early 1990s he began building a luxury log cabin on 240 acres in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia that he purchased for $960,000, only stopping after negotiating a land trade with Forest Service in which he got 105 acres near Telluride he then sold for more than $4 million.
In 1999 the High Country News ran a story that Chapman and his business partners had begun advertising trophy homes that could be built on former mining claims inside the Holy Cross Wilderness, south of Vail. The same year he distributed a glossy brochure to real estate agents in Gunnison County advertising a “hand-crafted, state-of-the-art mountain home” to be built on a 40-acre parcel surrounded on three sides by the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area and on one side by the Fossil Ridge Recreation Management Area, the Denver Post reported.
A year later the Denver Post reported that Chapman was attempting to sell a 4,744 square foot log home on a 5-acre parcel near Emerald Lake in the Weminuche Wilderness that he bought in 1997 for $37,200 – for $4.7 million.
The GHDC Bear Creek claims lie within the county’s High Country Zone District, which allows for the construction of single family dwellings with less than 1,000 square feet of floor area – although additional floor area – perhaps up to about 2000-2,500 square feet – could be obtained in exchange for incentives such as retiring development rights, preserving or enhancing public recreation opportunities, or providing an easement for public non-motorized access through the property, said Rozycki.
“He may challenge the zoning, but it does apply to his property at present unless there’s an attempt to take some legal action to overturn it,” said Rozycki.