State official backs Sunapee expansion plans, with some conditions

Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2015
The state gave preliminary and conditional approval yesterday to a long-contentious expansion on Mount Sunapee.

At a meeting in Newbury, Department of Resources and Economic Development Commissioner Jeffrey Rose said the west bowl expansion could move forward if the new ski area is transferred to state ownership, some trails are realigned to make way for sensitive habitat and if the resort donates an additional 260 acres for conservation.

“I believe this amended (plan) represents a balanced and responsible project that respects the natural resources, enhances the recreational experiences for the public, brings strong economic benefits to the region and the state, and further solidifies the strength of the state’s parks system,” Rose said, reading from a statement.

The announcement is part of a draft response to the resort’s proposal, which has been decades in the making and which some environmentalists have long opposed, arguing it could set a dangerous precedent for public-private partnerships. The department will now begin receiving public comment on the response, both through written responses and at a forum May 5 at Mount Sunapee Resort.

The Sunapee Difference, which operates the resort, has asked for permission to build 75 acres of new trails, a high-speed chairlift and a lodge at the northwest corner of Mount Sunapee State Park, part of which it already leases from the state. The business owns the rest of the proposed expansion zone, which would encompass 150 acres.

The plan was delayed for years by litigation, until last summer, when a judge granted the business leasing rights to the mountain’s western flank, which crosses town and county lines.

Owners originally envisioned an eastward expansion, but were forced to turn westward after the discovery of old-growth forest in 1999. Earlier this year, the state said it had found no old growth forest in the west bowl, but Rose said yesterday that “some older trees” still exist there, and that the resort would have to be mindful of those by realigning two new trails and narrowing the width of the chairlift corridor.

“These sections of mature trees are part of the larger forest mosaic of Mount Sunapee and part of the overall exemplary natural community of the Sunapee Highlands Corridor,” Rose said.

Rose noted that the amended expansion would bring tens of thousands in new tax dollars to the towns of Goshen and Newbury, plus $300,000 in annual taxes and lease payments to the state, as well as at least $1 million in estimated wages.

If the state’s response is finalized, the resort will still have to clear a series of hurdles, including local permitting and the completion of an updated traffic study.

Mount Sunapee Vice President and General Manager Jay Gamble said the company is willing to meet the state’s conditions and could potentially break ground as early as 2017. It has operated the resort for the last 16 years, taking over from the state.

“I’m very pleased today to see that (Rose has) recognized our efforts to be good stewards of Mount Sunapee,” he said.

Nancy Marashio, a representative for the Society for the Protection of the New Hampshire Forests, which has raised concerns about the project, said she cautiously welcomed Rose’s changes but also worried that the expansion could affect sensitive growth.

“The commissioner has done a better job than I expected he could in balancing,” Marashio said. “But my bottom-line question continues to be: Should in fact the ski area be allowed to expand at all?”

But Rose seems to have addressed one of the group’s central sticking points: that the new bowl would expand into some private land, disrupting what has historically been a purely public resource. Rose said the land transfer would happen no later than 2028.

An additional condition would be 20-foot setbacks from the park boundary on all west bowl trails, which Rose said would prevent abutters from accessing a public area for private gain.

Opponents have previously noted that the resort’s 2004 master development plan cited the potential for up to 250 condominiums in the west bowl area. Gamble has repeatedly said the resort has no current plans to pursue those, but Rose’s amended plan would not prohibit it. The company would have to get town approval before undertaking any such project.

Hess Gates, a proponent who owns a bed and breakfast with his wife in Sunapee, said he has been impressed with the resort’s tenure to date, and supported the draft compromise.

“We ski and we hike,” Gates said. “And I can say from both experiences that, under this ownership, they both have improved.”

Rose’s full draft response is available through the department’s website. Public comment continues for 50 days.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)