State Approaching Decision On Mount Sunapee Expansion

Dec 4, 2014

Snow guns and early season conditions at Mount Sunapee
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

  The Mount Sunapee Ski Resort is asking the state for permission to build new lifts and new trails. It’s a proposal that was stymied by political resistance in Concord for ten years. Now with a change of governors, a court victory, and growing local support for the expansion, the lay of the land for the expansion has shifted dramatically.

When it comes to expanding a ski area, the arguments for and against aren’t going to surprise anyone. Proponents say the change will create jobs, increase tax revenue for towns and the state, and bring more tourist dollars to the region. Opponents say expansion will be environmentally destructive, increase traffic, and drive up property taxes.

Mouse over this image to see the proposed changes to Mt. Sunapee's trails.

What’s different about Sunapee is because it’s owned by the state, and leased to a private operator, the state says yes or no to any changes.

Frank McConnell is the mustachioed owner of a Bob Skinner’s Ski and Sport, a shop at the base of Mount Sunapee. He’s been there for 30 years.

“In 1998, commissioner Robb Thomson stepped into this place, and said to me if you’re not in favor of leasing, you might as well get ready to put a for sale sign on your business because we’re closing Mt. Sunapee, probably by the year 2000,” says McConnell.

Obviously, that never happened. After years of operating deficits, the state let a private company take over operations in 1998 with a 40-year lease. The payments are sent to Cannon Mountain, to help the state’s last ski area pay for its capital improvements.

This year, McConnell and a local builder of high-end homes formed a group called Citizens for Mount Sunapee’s Future to support the mountain’s proposed West Bowl expansion.

The resort’s plan is to add a chairlift and around 120 acres of new trails. Some of the new development would take place on private land abutting the state park.

So far, more than 70 percent of the public comments submitted to the state support the West Bowl project. It’s a far different story from when the idea was first proposed.

McConnell thinks the biggest reason for this turn-around is simple. “We have a new Governor. I’m not going to stick my neck out personally, against a governor Lynch, who makes it a campaign that he is ever going to allow the west bowl expansion to happen.”

Ski shop owner Frank McConnell in front of his store. McConnell and a local builder have been advocating for the west bowl expansion in op-eds in various newspapers.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Years of Stonewalling

The Sunapee expansion was one of a handful of topics on which Lynch took an absolute position against during his very first run for governor.

And he stuck to his guns. In 2005, he refused to consider the needed changes in Sunapee’s lease.

“What we are being asked to do – and let’s make no mistake about it – is to give up part of a state park, which belongs to the people of New Hampshire, for the purpose of enhancing the value of a private condominium development,” he told reporters and others after a meeting of the Executive Council.

For better or worse, this debate about the Sunapee expansion has often turned on the issue of slope-side condos. There are some in the town of Goshen, which would contain the lodge and parking lots for the new West Bowl, who thought a real estate development would damage the character of their town. To be sure, there are others who say condos, and what they would mean for the tax base, would be a plus.

Regardless, after years of standoff, which included a fight over boundaries of the resort’s lease that went to the state Supreme Court (which the resort won, earlier this year) Sunapee has dropped any mention of real estate development from its current five-year plan.

“We have done no detailed studies or work to assess the viability of a real-estate project,” says Jay Gamble, Sunapee’s manager.

He says there are many hurdles to clear before that could happen: a new master plan, engineering and financial studies, permission from Goshen’s zoning and planning boards. “At this point I can’t even speak to the future viability of a project and whether one would occur or not,” he says.

Opponents still grumble the resort operator could propose condos in the next five-year plan, but they have also shifted their focus.

Old Growth Forest, or Some Old Trees?

In 2004 the New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau did a survey of the proposed expansion area. On one, smallish, 16-acre patch of the slope they found some very old trees.

Gary Stansfield shows off one of the massive yellow-birches that populate a patch on the Western side of Mount Sunapee
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Gary Stansfield is a naturalist and worked for Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which has been saying that the state needs more information before it can decide, but he has his own reasons for not liking the idea. One is that he lives right at the base of Sunapee’s western slope.

“If you look off to the right here, we’ve got this large diameter, really stag-headed, broccoli-topped yellow-birch,” says Stansfield, tromping off-trail through what he calls the “puckerbrush” and indicating other signs that this area has not been logged in a very long time, if at all.

Long ago, Sunapee had considered expanding eastward, but shelved that plan after discovering the Eastern Bowl was home to extensive old growth.

Stansfield asserts this patch is old growth forest. The Heritage Bureau lists it as “possibly old growth” and suggests the patch could warrant protection.

“The Heritage Bureau cored some trees in here in that 2004 study and found spruce over 200 [years-old],” Stansfield says, “So, it’s pretty cool to think that those trees heard timber wolves howling here… may have even heard the whirr wings of the passenger pigeons.”

The naturalist that Sunapee hired did not see anything he thought was old growth. While he did observe old trees, he said they were “exceptionally uncommon.”

Signs of black bear on a beech tree on the side of Mt. Sunapee. The naturalist hired by the resort did not find any of this scarring during his assessment. "Some folks who are skeptics would say it wasn't a very thoroughly done environmental management plan," notes Stansfield.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

  According to Sunapee’s Jay Gamble the Heritage Bureau is taking another look at that forest right now, which sits directly under the lift-line of the proposed expansion.

“We need to wait for the scientists to finish their work, but we would do anything that we could for avoidance or mitigation to minimize any impact to the resource,” says Gamble.

A Decision Forthcoming

Even if the Heritage Bureau decides it’s just a couple of big trees and not old growth, or if Sunapee were to reroute the chairlift to avoid cutting those trees, there are those who won’t be happy with any Sunapee expansion.

Catherine "Muffin" Bushueff, a long-time opponent from the town of Sunapee, says the basic principal is that state parks shouldn’t be used for private profit.

“That is not why they were created. They were actually created for just the opposite purpose: to protect land, to provide public access,” says Bushueff

And if she sees the expansion as nothing but exploitation by private profiteers, the other side holds a similar caricature in their minds.

Here’s how ski shop owner Frank McConnell describes expansion opponents.

“The opposition I feel kind of wants to go back to dismantling lifts, let’s go back to a walking park again. It’s not going to happen. This has already been established, the people have spoke,” he says.

The people will have another chance to speak on this issue: the Department of Resources and Economic Development says it will be asking for public comment again after it gives it’s feedback on the Sunapee expansion.

While there is no deadline for DRED’s decision, many who are watching this issue say they expect it in the coming weeks

**Clarification: an earlier version of this story stated that the Forest Society opposed the West Bowl expansion. The Forest Society has raised questions about the expansion that it believes need to be answered before the expansion can be approved.**