Editorial: Sunapee lawsuit has been a waste of time and money
The battle between the operators of Mount Sunapee Resort and state officials is back in court. The dispute over the terms of the lease, originally negotiated by Tim and Diane Mueller and their company, Okemo Mountain Inc., would be farcical were it not for the cost to taxpayers and the threat its success would mean for the future of land protection. As it has in the past, the judicial system should come down on the side of the public and not that of those who seek to appropriate public land for private profit.
The ski resort has long wanted to expand to the west to connect park property with land it purchased in neighboring Goshen, on which it would erect several hundred slope-side condominiums. When rebuffed, it sued. A lower court dismissed the 2007 lawsuit and the company appealed. Okemo’s successor company, Sunapee Difference LLC, claims Rob Thomson, son of the late Republican governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. and then-director of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, duped the Muellers in 1998 into thinking they were leasing the whole park.
Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that the suit could not be dismissed without first determining whether Thomson led the Muellers to believe that their lease extended to the park’s boundaries. In 2013, Thomson told the court he never said whether the lease reached the park’s borders. That it didn’t do so can be clearly seen on maps outlining the lease hold. The allegation is without merit.
The state and the Muellers, we believe, knew what was being offered. The commercial expansion of the park and its connection to adjacent properties was exactly what opponents of the lease feared.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which bought the land and gave it to the state to create Sunapee State Park, would never have done so had it believed the result would be real estate development. Any mention of a commercial expansion of the lease would have killed the deal.
The baby boom generation is deciding what to do with its land. The fear that property donated for public use will someday be developed against the donor’s wishes is real. Should the resort operators prevail in the Sunapee case, conservation land trusts, municipalities and the state itself will have a much harder time convincing potential donors that their land will be in safe hands.
For years now, the big money in the ski industry has come not from lift-ticket and concession revenue, but real estate development – thus the suit. In the past, the company has claimed that governors John Lynch and Jeanne Shaheen privately expressed their support for expansion. Neither contention could be substantiated, and both governors campaigned against the expansion. The company also claimed that then-governor Lynch was contractually bound to put the resort’s expansion up for a vote before the Executive Council. Had it prevailed, 200 years of history and gubernatorial prerogative would have been reversed.
Now, in desperation, it claims that it was tricked by Thomson. The leaseholder’s constant fight to expand Sunapee has forced the resort’s neighbors to hold their breath for years, and wasted court time and taxpayer money. It deserves to be thrown out once and for all.