Official touts benefits of Sunapee expansion plan to Executive Council

  • Mount Sunapee Resort is seen on March 17, 2016.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 3/31/2016 2:58:58 AM

The state’s top development official tried Wednesday to assure the Executive Council that the latest plan to expand the Mount Sunapee ski resort will have widespread benefits, including for environmentalists who are among the project’s strongest critics.

“I feel as though we’ve benefited from listening with an open mind, and I feel like we have a really good proposal that’s before you,” said Jeffrey Rose, commissioner of the Department of Resources and Development, at a work session ahead of a planned April 6 council vote.

Rose approved the expansion earlier this month, after nearly two years of review. The newest draft, which would add a chairlift and four new runs and transfer ownership of the land back to the state, needs the support of the council to move forward with the permitting process.

The council had a number of questions Wednesday, many of which they said had been brought by constituents in recent days, focusing on a longstanding concern that the resort wants to eventually build slopeside condominiums on land it owns adjacent to the expansion area.

Rose has tried to publicly address that concern by increasing a buffer zone to the abutting land from 20 feet to 50 feet, and by requiring that any path from private land to the park be equally accessible to the public. But he acknowledged Wednesday that neighbors could still legally access the park without a trail, just as they can at other parks in the state.

Residential development on the abutting land is prohibited under local zoning restrictions, but those could be amended. Rose said the added buffer zone and the trail restriction will at least help deter private development.

“We want to make sure we protect the state’s interest in making sure there’s no exclusive access for private development onto those state lands,” he said.

Councilor Chris Pappas, a Democrat from Manchester, said several people had raised concerns to him that the revised expansion “tips the balance of the park too much in favor of skiers.”

“Do you feel that’s the case?” he said.

“No,” Rose replied, adding that more than 400 acres would be added to Mount Sunapee State Park, and that only about 56 of those would be for skiing trails.

“It’ll certainly be protecting the hiking, protecting the ridgelines; it’ll be protecting some of headwaters of brooks that are in that area as well,” Rose said. “So whether you like to hike, bird . . . hunt . . . you’ll have all those opportunities – and in a greater fashion within a state park.”

Rose said the expansion would be the last one for the resort, noting that it wouldn’t be geographically feasible to add more ski terrain to the mountain. And he said it was necessary to help the resort stay competitive with others that have grown themselves.

The state owned Sunapee until 1998, when it leased that ski area to a private company. Under Rose’s plan, the resort would transfer ownership back after the permitting process but before construction begins, which could take at least a couple of years.

Sunapee has been trying to expand its ski area for nearly two decades, an effort that has been fiercely contentious. Opponents argue that the plan will degrade scenic public land, price out low-income families and open the door for intrusive slopeside development.

Supporters, including several local businesses, insist it’s a worthy compromise that will stimulate the local economy. Part of the plan would require Sunapee Difference, which operates the park, to contribute more in annual state and local taxes.

The final outline for the so-called West Bowl expansion includes enhanced forest protections and year-round hiking on the summit trail. It also eliminates all ski trails within a 16-acre area of sensitive habitat and calls for the resort to spend up to $40,000 on ecological research on the mountain.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she supports the idea, but she agreed last week to delay a final vote of the council until after it had been briefed by Rose and constituents had a chance to provide final feedback.

Councilors remained outwardly neutral to the idea Wednesday, but complimented Rose on what they called an extensive and thoughtful process. Hundreds of public comments were received over 22 months.

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

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