On a stage in Newbury, in front of an expectant audience, state officials carried out what looked like a standard meeting of the Mount Sunapee Advisory Committee. But, the audience of more than fifty people was gathered to find out whether Mt Sunapee’s West Bowl expansion would be allowed to go forward.
What they heard is that after more than a decade, the state has proposed granting permission to expand the Mt Sunapee Ski Area with a new chairlift, six new trails, a new parking lot and lodge.
But the approval carried conditions.
As initially proposed, the base area of the Mount Sunapee expansion would have been on private property, while the summit was still within the state park. Jeff Rose, Commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development proposes the developer donate the 150 acres that would host the new trails to the state.
“The West Bowl Recreation area will become public lands, and public facilities,” Rose said.
He suggested two trails should be moved, and a chairlift clear-cut narrowed to reduce the impact on a section of forest that contains trees over a 150-years-old. “However, since there is an impact to the natural exemplary community, I propose to mitigate these impacts through the donation of land currently owned by the Mount Sunapee Resort.”
A further 260 acres of land would go to the state park: 52 acres near the summit (10 acres of which are of similar maturity to the impacted stand of trees) and another 208 acres along a regional hiking trail that is already protected from development by existing conservation easements.
To close, Rose proposed adding 10-years to private operator’s 40-year lease of the state park.
Those in attendance for this road-show were – perhaps predictably – the most polarized crowd out there on this issue.
On one side, members of the long-time opposition group, Friends of Mount Sunapee.
“I think that the park with their money got to the state to lie on its back with its feet up in the air and say ‘What do you want? What do you want?’” said Jay Flanagan, a member of the Friends group, “I think it’s kind of sad actually.”
And on the other side, the Citizens for Mount Sunapee’s Future: headed up by Frank McConnell, who owns the ski shop at the base of the mountain.
“I’m really excited. This news… this is great, and I commend everybody who has worked on this project,”
While the expansion’s opponents were quick to raise the specter of future condo-developments adjacent to the trails (Commissioner Rose said that any authority for the construction of any housing would rest with the town of Goshen, and new residences be set back at least 90 feet from the trails, with trails connecting to the resort’s network prohibited), its proponents said it would be a welcome boost to the region economically.
Jay Gamble, the general manager of Sunapee, says, even if all goes exactly as is laid out in the state’s proposal, it’ll be years before skiers are on the slopes. “Well this is a process, and this is a very encouraging first step in that process for Mount Sunapee, and we just have to see how it moves along.”
And there are many hurdles ahead.
“Certainly in this room today, I have heard the words legal challenge more than once,” said Nancy Mirashio with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, who sits on the state’s advisory committee.
She says the big question – in her mind – is whether the state is doing enough to preserve that stand of 150-year-old trees, which a state biologist says merits legal protection. “When I look at that it says that the state has an obligation to do everything they can to protect that, and I think development going ahead does not protect it, period.”
But that’s an open question, and Commissioner Rose says there’s a precedent for a comprising when it comes to protecting sensitive environments
“We have several examples, whether it’s the Ossippee Lake, or Mount Washington State Park, or some of the projects we have over at Cannon at Mittersill,” he explained, “So it’s not precedent setting, but it’s also not something we don’t take lightly.”
A 50 day comment period opens today on Rose’s proposed deal for the West Bowl expansion, and there will be a hearing at the mountain in May where the public can air its concerns.