- Jul 1, 2001
theunionleader.com said:Controversy swirls around
Mt. Sunapee expansion
By PAULA TRACY
Union Leader Staff
NEWBURY — Picture giant billboards on the top of Mount Washington.
All Terrain Vehicle dealerships at the entrances to Pisgah and Pawtuckaway State Parks.
The golden arches of McDonald’s greeting weary vacationers after the long ride to Lake Francis State Park in Pittsburg.
Tom Elliott doesn’t think so.
The Executive Director of the Friends of Mount Sunapee said the state will essentially be doing that again and again, “cannibalizing our state assets for a buck” if it allows for the expansion of the leasehold area at Mount Sunapee.
“This is a line in the sand issue in New Hampshire,” said Elliott. “They do this, what’s next?”
The “this” he refers to is a plan to further develop the Mount Sunapee ski area, including ski-from-your-door residences on adjacent private land.
The Mueller plan
Tim and Diane Mueller, owners of Okemo Resort in Vermont and Crested Butte in Colorado, also hold the lease to operate state-owned Mount Sunapee. They are asking the state for an expansion of the leasehold area by 175 acres from the current 968 acres.
The land would create 75 acres of new ski trails on the western edge of the park that would connect to private land, where the company hopes to build new lifts and up to 250 units of slopeside lodging including a hotel, townhouses, and half-million-dollar homes.
“The privatization of Mount Sunapee has already happened,” Tim Mueller told the Sunday News on Thursday. “The state has already leased the ski area. In the long run, it has to make money on its own . . .The worst that can happen is for it to revert back to the state. Skiers like new and better things and we think this is needed for it to be a business that is viable in the long run.”
Hearing this week
Department of Resources and Economic Development Commissioner Sean O’Kane said he will listen very intently to those who speak at a public hearing Thursday on a request to expand the state’s leased area at Mount Sunapee.
“I want to deal with the facts. There is tremendous passion on both sides of this issue. I want to hear it clearly and understand it fully because it means so much to so many people. But I will not make my decision on emotion,” he said.
In addition to listening, he said he is also taking considerable amount of written comment from business owners, local residents, groups, town and regional organizations “on both sides.”
Last week, O’Kane hiked the mountain with opponents of the lease and said he will spend considerable more time hearing from proponents as well.
Land of Goshen
O’Kane had barely sat down in his new office after the resignation of George Bald when the Muellers unveiled their hopes June 7 to increase the ski area as part of a five-year master development plan.
The land to be developed is primarily off Brook Road in the town of Goshen, population 750, which would see a 64 percent increase in the town’s existing housing, if approved.
Goshen’s Planning Chairman John Wirkkala wrote O’Kane Aug. 4 on behalf of the board to express concern that Sunapee’s analysis of associated impacts to the development were “inadequate” in its master plan and urged he work with the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission to conduct more studies.
O’Kane has said the master plan is still under review by his department and he is awaiting comment from the state’s Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Services, and the Mount Sunapee Advisory Committee, which is a regional advisory board to DRED on the Mount Sunapee lease.
The advisory committee has held a number of forums in recent months, and a majority of the more than 200 who’ve attended each has voiced opposition to the development.
O’Kane said he plans to make a decision on whether to recommend the lease expansion plan in November.
If Governor and Council then approve, he said, a National Park Service review of the amended lease would follow, including an independent analysis to ensure compliance under the Land and Water Conservation Fund program.
The fund has been used in the past to make improvements at Mount Sunapee and the lease was subject to that approval in 1998. Any changes to the lease would also be subject to that oversight.
Jim Powell, chairman of the Newbury Board of Selectmen, said last week that his board will weigh in after the analysis of the National Park Service has been rendered, and after a town-commissioned study of roadway issues on Route 103 is complete.
He said it was the board’s original impression that the federal studies would be done before O’Kane made his recommendation. But O’Kane said Powell misunderstood the process and that the federal oversight would be after he made the recommendation.
Powell said the town is largely pleased with the way the Muellers have handled the lease.
The ski area has seen visits increase from 110,000 to an average of 250,000 annually since the lease inception six years ago, and more than $14 million has been spent on ski area infrastructure in that time.
“The mountain contributes to some of the development we are experiencing but that is a natural process . . . with the lake. There is more development all the time and we want to understand how to handle it better,” he said.
“Mount Sunapee has not been aggressive enough in doing the studies we think are needed so we can plan for it (development,)” Powell said. “We are hopeful the federal study will give some guidance.”
Mueller said he feels his company has been very responsive to the needs of the communities in the studies, but has yet to receive a specific request for more analysis from any town board.
“These studies and our plan have been out a month and a half and we have not heard what’s not adequate,” Mueller said. “All the Friends of Mount Sunapee are saying is ‘no you can’t do anything.’ Give us feedback.”
Tax, job implications
The development plan would mean increased tax payments to Goshen but also increase some municipal service needs, such as police and fire services.
The expansion plan would generate between $944,000 and $1.9 million in local property taxes annually and would also mean an increase in municipal services estimated at $295,000 to $422,000.
Newbury would also see tax revenues increased by $134,000 annually along with increased costs of about $45,000.
The expansion would also mean more traffic with daily ski area capacity going from 5,650 skiers a day to 6,850. Route 103’s rated capacity is 2,599 vehicles per hour and projections for 2020 are for about 1,200 cars an hour during worst-case conditions, the plan states.
The plan would also mean expansion of the employment base in the area. An estimated 76 new seasonal jobs and 32 jobs managing the housing development would come.
While construction is under way over a five- to seven-year period, $13.3 million to $19.2 million in wages would be paid out and result in 46 to 93 full-time equivalent jobs, the report states.
A wildlife study found no endangered or threatened species though “certain deep-woods species of birds may be affected” by the opening of the forest for trails and housing.
Snowmaking for the additional 75 acres of trails on the western flank would require about 33 million gallons of water each season from Lake Sunapee. But because it is a 4,090 acre lake, the report states there would be minimal impact on the resource. Snowmelt would come down Gunnison Brook along Brook Road primarily, but “will not adversely affect it” the report states.
Steps already taken
O’Kane said three conditions for consideration of the request, set forth by the department by his predecessor, George Bald, have already been met by the leaseholder.
These were the creation of a five-year master plan, the purchase of 100 acres of conservation land to be donated to the state to add to the Sunapee/Pillsbury Greenway and the involvement of all interested parties.
But while the opponents are a part of the process, Elliott fears that O’Kane is not listening to concerns for retaining the character of the rural and picturesque region and is looking at it only from the state’s perspective of a joint partnership agreement, where income goes to pay for park improvements at the Cannon Mountain ski area and thereby frees up money for other parks.
Elliott said he sees no end to the potential for “ski sprawl” if approved. Currently, there is no residential development associated with the Mount Sunapee ski area.
Rich McLeod, director of state parks, said he is in support the request for a leasehold expansion but he will live with whatever is decided upon.
“This has been the best private-public partnership in state park history,” he said, because it not only saved Mount Sunapee as a ski area, it paid for improvements to save Cannon Mountain ski area and keep it in state hands.
The state receives an annual flat fee from the ski operators (it started at $150,000 a year and, with adjustments for inflation, is about $160,000 now) and also gets 3 percent of the operation’s gross profits.
Combined, the state is receiving about $650,000 annually from the lease and it could see an increase to about $810,000 annually, with visits expected to increase by 26 percent under the expansion request. Those monies — more than $2 million — have paid for improvements at state-owned and operated Cannon Mountain ski area in Franconia.
McLeod said not only has the lease provided money to operate and improve Cannon, it has allowed for improvements to occur at other state parks (which is a self-funded system) such as Pillsbury, Lake Francis and Crawford Notch state parks, as well as the purchase of Umbagog Lake Campground in Errol.
Elliott termed the logic like “burning the village to save it. Growing up here with this as my park, I abhor that logic.”
McLeod noted that opening the lease at Mount Sunapee to amendments could open the door to further discussion on what the state might receive in income.
“There has been no discussions of that, yet,” he stressed.
Forest Society opposition
Charlie Niebling, policy director of the 10,000-member Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, said his organization did not oppose the leasing of Mount Sunapee back in 1998.
The Society acquired much of the land in 1911 to preserve it from further logging and gave it to the state to be used to create a ski area for public enjoyment and recreation.
Niebling said it was obvious to his organization in the 1990s that the state would not continue to capitalize the ski area to keep it competitive and the lease provided for the public’s continued use of the land for recreation, as was the original intent in 1911.
But the Society opposes the leasehold expansion request.
“In our judgment the lease expansion is proposed largely, if not entirely, to enhance the profitability of this private enterprise and therefore, there is no compelling public interest in its approval,” he wrote March 3, in advance of the release of the five-year master plan.
He said the Forest Society, which has more than 400 Sunapee area members, supports more than $10 million in improvements contemplated in the existing lease area, which are in the five year plan.
“It should be about making it better, not bigger,” he said last week.