Cog Railway owner doubts that proposed Skyline Lodge will be open for 150th anniversary in 2019

Union Leader Correspondent
February 20. 2018 11:30PM
Wayne Presby, the owner of the Cog railway, rides to the summit of Mount Washington last September during an outing with media. A favorite White Mountains attraction since it opened in 1869, the Cog has proposed constructing a 35-room hotel over the train tracks, at a location about 1,000 feet from the 6,288-foot-high peak of the tallest mountain in the Northeast. The proposal has drawn criticism from groups concerned that the lodge would have a negative impact on the mountain's alpine zone. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

While committed to building a 35-room hotel on the slope of Mount Washington, Cog Railway owner Wayne Presby is doubtful that it will be open in time for the railway’s 150th anniversary next year.

The project faces opposition from at least seven conservation groups.

Presby said Tuesday the Cog is also assembling documents for the Coos County Planning Board in support of the lodge while waiting for a ruling from the body about the legality of what it says is a multi-use trail, but which critics contend is an unpermitted road that runs parallel to the train tracks.

Announced in 2016, Presby has said the Skyline Lodge — which would be built about 1,000 feet from the summit of the tallest mountain in the Northeast within the 99-foot-wide strip of land owned by the Cog — would meet the demand for lodging and also alleviate water and sewer problems at the Sherman Adams Visitor Center.

Last February, six environmental organizations sent a letter to the Coos County Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment asking them not to allow the Skyline Lodge to be built, arguing there would be harmful consequences on the mountain’s fragile alpine zone.

It is believed the Skyline Lodge, which would be constructed on a part of the mountain that is in a protected area above 2,700 feet in elevation, would need both site plan approval from the planning board and a variance from the zoning board.

At present, “we’re still gathering documentation we feel is necessary to have a complete application for Skyline Lodge,” said Presby, adding: “we can’t tell you when we plan on submitting those documents."
In this file photo, Cog Railway steam trains make their way along the line at the Skyline Siding, site of the Cog's proposed hotel near the summit of Mount Washington. Only two steam engines remain in the Cog's fleet; seven others are powered by biodiesel. (UNION LEADER FILE)

As to the so-called trail along the tracks, which he has previously said could be used by emergency responders and for snow-cat tours in winter, “our position is that there is no issue because it’s not a road.”

He said “literally hundreds” of people over the last weekend were hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing along the trail.

As to the Skyline Lodge, “it’s our opinion that the planning board can approve construction in that area if they’d like but it’s up to them to decide,” said Presby.

The Cog in August 2017 reached out to the Appalachian Mountain Club, which it believed was the spokesman for the groups that sent the letter opposing the Skyline Lodge to the Coos County Planning Board and ZBA, but the AMC, said Presby, “refused to meet with us to discuss the proposal.”

Ken Kimball, director of research at the AMC, said Tuesday that the organization, in an Aug. 27 email to the Cog, asked that the meeting be postponed because other than what was shared publicly about the Lodge, there was no specific site plan to consider.

Kimball said the AMC, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the New Hampshire Audubon, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire, all have similar concerns, as does Keep the Whites Wild, which he described as a grassroots organization.
Headed in opposite directions, two coaches pass each other on their respective ways, last September, to the summit and base of the Cog Railway. (John Koziol/Union Leader Correspondent)

Helicopter pad

As the AMC neglected to tell Presby of its opposition to the Skyline Lodge before the joint letter was sent to the planning board and ZBA, Presby said he suspended the group’s use of a helicopter-landing zone on the Cog property.

The helicopter was used to fly in supplies, and to fly out waste from its Lakes of the Clouds hut on Mount Washington; the AMC, however, has since found an alternative site to operate the helicopter, said Kimball, although it is not as close to the hut as the Cog is.

Presby said it was doubtful that the Cog and the opponents of the Skyline Lodge could reach a resolution that made them all happy. That said, he added, “We definitely will continue to listen.”

Jason Reimers, an attorney representing Keep the Whites Wild, agreed with Presby that the Cog can’t build a hotel on Mount Washington that would make his group happy.

“A hotel up in the alpine zone,” he said, “is going to destroy alpine vegetation and aesthetically, it will be visible from the valley and so for many other reasons, it’s a bad place to put a hotel.”

Keep the Whites Wild has said the Cog should build a hotel at the base of the railway, instead of on Mount Washington.

The group has also filed a complaint with the Coos County Commission questioning the legality of the Cog’s road/trail. The commission in turn referred the question to the Coos County Planning Board, where it sits.

Kimball said the Skyline Lodge announcement “blindsided” the organization and others and therefore “it wasn’t surprising that a lot of people were rather upset rather quickly for the same reason” as the AMC.

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