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State approves sale of Mount Sunapee ski resort

  • Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Stewart announces the state’s support for a deal giving Vail Resorts the lease to Mount Sunapee, Sept. 26, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

  • Local attendees listen to a presentation by state officials announcing the state’s support for a deal giving Vail Resorts the lease to Mount Sunapee, Sept. 26, 2018. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 9/26/2018 11:59:57 PM

It’s a done deal – almost. Three months after Vail Resorts announced an ambitious deal to buy the rights to the Mount Sunapee ski area, state authorities have signed off on the lease transfer, moving the agreement past the last major hurdle ahead of the coming ski season.

At a public information event at the resort’s Sunapee Lodge on Wednesday evening, Commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Sarah Stewart said that after a review, an audit and an extensive public input period, the department found no reason to object.

“We have come to the conclusion that New Hampshire can be confident that Vail is a great fit for our state,” Stewart said, addressing a room of local residents to applause.

The approval will allow Vail to take over operations at the ski area, which is built on public land but has been in private operation since 1998. But with it comes a handful of proposed amendments to the underlying lease, all of which will require approval by the Executive Council and governor next month.

Among those: a recent provision allowing for the “West Bowl expansion” – a controversial proposal approved by the governor and council in 2016 but strongly opposed by some in the community. That proposal will likely come before the Executive Council on Oct. 17.

For residents and resort employees, the approval caps an era of local ownership and kicks off a dramatic new phase. In 1998, Tim and Diane Mueller took over ownership and operation of the ski area from the state, eventually winning the trust of a skeptical community through local engagement and steady investment.

Then, on June 4, Vail announced it had reached a deal to purchase the operating rights for Mount Sunapee and two other ski areas – Okemo in Vermont and Crested Butte in Colorado – also owned by Tim and Diane Mueller. The deal came unexpectedly. At that time, the ski resort behemoth had agreed to pay $82 million for the operating rights and $155 million to pay off the subleases for the three ski areas. But under the terms of the original 1998 lease agreement, any subsequent transfers must be signed off by the state. That approval, the lease states, “shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

Last week, the department unveiled the results of its public comment period, much of which appeared positive about the transfer. Of the 101 respondents, about half expressed a definitive opinion – 82 percent of that half had positive things to say.

The attorney general’s office also commissioned an audit, dating back to 2015, to determine whether the ski area is meeting the terms of its lease; Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said “no material issues have been identified.”

For residents and environmental advocates, this year’s process stood in contrast to a change in ownership last year. In April 2017, the holder of the parent lease to the land rights – CNL Lifestyle Properties – sold its ownership to a hedge fund company, Och-Ziff, through a structured sale that allowed to evade state scrutiny. State officials, including MacDonald, were taken by surprise. Residents voiced outrage at the lack of transparency.

In response, MacDonald said Wednesday, the state is seeking Executive Council approval for an amendment that would expand state oversight over all future lease transfers.

More divisive, however, is the amendment retaining the agreement for the West Bowl expansion. In 2016, the Executive Council under former governor Maggie Hassan, approved an amendment to the lease allowing a 56-acre expansion of ski trails, over the objections of 2,500 resident signatures. That expansion never moved ahead. In an information session in July, a Vail representative said the resort has no immediate plans to follow through on the expansion, either. But the amendment, if approved, would keep the option open moving forward.

Speaking after the meeting Wednesday, some residents called on the Executive Council to vote down the amendment next month, which would nix the expansion entirely.

“It’s unfathomable that they approved something in 2016 that doesn't carry along with the lease, but I’m happy to hear it because it gives us another opportunity to force this new operator to be clear and honest about what their plan is,” said Tom Elliot, a former executive director of Friends of Mount Sunapee, an activist group.

Details on the proposed amendments are likely to be released Oct. 12, MacDonald said Wednesday.

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