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Council approves Mt. Sunapee expansion

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 06. 2016 3:04PM
Councilor Colin Van Ostern and Councilor Joe Kenney (right) deliberate before voting on the Mount Sunapee expansion plan. (DAN TUOHY)

CONCORD — The Executive Council has voted to approve a major expansion of the Mount Sunapee ski area.

The council on Wednesday voted 3-1, with Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, opposed. Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, as chief executive officer of Waterville Valley Resort, recused himself from the vote.

The Friends of Mount Sunapee and the New Hampshire chapter of the Sierra Club, two groups critical of the expansion, said they may challenge it in court.

Van Ostern said any development of public lands deserved a high level of scrutiny and standard. “The proposal in front of us would skew that balance that we’ve struck in New Hampshire by doing more to enable private gain than to ensure public access,” he said.

The proposed expansion would create four new trails on roughly 56 acres in an area of the mountain being called “West Bowl.” The approval includes a 10-year option for Mount Sunapee Resort operators, through June 30, 2028. The project cost is an estimated $12 million to $15 million, according to Jay Gamble, vice president and general manager of Mount Sunapee Resort.

Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, recalled how, as a former state senator, he voted to recommend the Mount Sunapee ski area be leased to a private operator almost 20 years ago. He said it was the right decision then, and the right path with the current proposed lease and expansion.

“I believe it does have the right balance of environmental protection,” Wheeler said.

Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, also called it a balanced plan. He said issues of public access and public involvement would continue to be raised as the project moves forward.

“I think, fundamentally, Sunapee should be a state park that hosts a ski area, and not a ski area that happens to be a state park,” Pappas said.

Councilor Joe Kenney said the boards of selectmen in Newbury, Goshen and Bradford supported the expansion. He added that the opponents, through voicing their concerns, helped make the lease arrangement stronger.

The Sierra Club’s Catherine Corkery said the project would result in irrevocable damage to the forest area on the western side of Mount Sunapee.

“This is pay to play,” she said of potential future private development and access to the West Bowl.

The Friends of Mount Sunapee called it an “exploitation” of natural resources for private profit.

“The short-sighted expansion plan is a violation of public trust, facilitates the cutting of an exemplary natural forest to allow for residential sprawl, and will not create the meaningful employment opportunities our community desperately needs,” the group said in a statement. “Moreover, the expansion plan allows the state to abdicate its responsibility under the guise of local control by placing an undue regulatory burden on the small rural town of Goshen.”

Frank MacConnell, owner of Bob Skinner’s Ski & Sport Shop in Newbury near the entrance to Mount Sunapee, applauded the council vote. He is with Citizens for Mount Sunapee’s Future, a group that has supported the expansion.

“It just means that we’re going to have the opportunity of having some slow and steady growth,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen overnight.”

Gamble told reporters after the vote that the project would result in about a 20 percent increase in skiable terrain, and a corresponding 20 to 25 percent increase in revenues. The state Department of Resources and Economic Development has a revenue sharing plan for 3 percent, which benefits state-owned and managed Cannon Mountain, he said.

“We’ve worked on this plan for 14 years now. It’s been very carefully vetted by DRED, and we’re very confident in the work that’s behind this plan,” he said.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-Newfields, said the approval was the culmination of a public process that took place over about two years.

“What the lease agreement really reflects is a balance between recreation and preserving our natural beauty and natural resources, but also recognizing the importance of Mount Sunapee, not only as an economic driver in this state, in our travel and tourism industry, but also a really important component to funding our state park system,” Hassan said after the vote.

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