BERLIN — Saying they were structures that, in his opinion, required a formal review before construction, the chairman of the Coos County Planning Board has asked the Cog Railway to either explain why it was exempt from oversight in building three sheds track-side on Mount Washington or to file a site plan application for having done so.
After the conclusion of the planning board’s Wednesday meeting at the Coos County Nursing Home, John Scarinza informed his colleagues that prior to the start of the session he had spoken with Wayne Presby, the owner of the Cog, about what Scarinza described as warming huts or sheds that were seemingly built last fall at around the 4,000-foot mark on the tallest peak in the Northeast.
Saying Presby’s interpretation of the zoning regulations may be different than his, Scarinza asked Presby, who was in attendance on an unrelated matter and did not address the board about the sheds, to produce for the board’s next meeting on June 19 either a memo explaining why the sheds didn’t require a site plan or to file one.
“Everybody should follow the regulations,” said David Govatski, who is a founding member of Keep the Whites Wild — a non-profit that was started in opposition to the Cog’s proposal to build a track-straddling hotel about a thousand feet from the summit. The Cog presented the hotel, to be known as the Skyline Lodge, conceptually to the Planning Board but never submitted a site-plan application.
While he declined to say whether KWW contacted Scarinza about the Cog’s sheds, Govatski, who attended Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting, said the group does notify the proper authorities when it observes violations on Mount Washington.
In 2017, KWW raised concerns that the Cog had built a road alongside its track on Mount Washington without permission, but the Planning Board ultimately decided that the Cog was using the road for maintenance and as a way to access the train in case of an emergency.
Unlike the Cog’s proposed hotel, which he said would have damaged the fragile alpine zone on Mount Washington, Govatski said the sheds were built in an area that had previously been impacted.
During a recent television news program on the occasion of the Cog’s 150th anniversary in 2019, pictures of the sheds, attributed to the Cog Railway, were shown with Presby explaining that they were “‘lean-to’s’ that we use in the winter time.” Presby told the show host that the sheds were located at the spot to where the Cog in past years used to run ski trains.
The legality of the sheds promises to be among two potentially contentious items on the planning board’s June 19 agenda, with the other being the Cog’s site plan application to rebuild its tracks and platform to the end of its right-of-way atop Mount Washington.
While the planning board on Wednesday accepted the site plan as complete and voted to hold a public hearing on it next month, members had questions for Presby, the most fundamental of which was who owns what within the summit circle.
When, after a back-and forth among Presby, his attorney, Earl Duval, and board members it was concluded that the State of New Hampshire owns the land on which the Cog has the right-of-way in question, Scarinza said it would be a good thing if the state declared its position on the record concerning the Cog proposal.
Duval told the Planning Board that the Cog sought merely to reconstruct, albeit better than before, the track and platform that had extended past and directly behind the Mount Washington Auto Road’s Stage Office.
Moving the summit platform further away from the Sherman Adams Building in the 60-acre Mount Washington State Park will alleviate an unsafe situation in the loading and unloading of Cog passengers, said Duval, adding that the new platform will be flush with the track, permitting greater ease of use for person’s with mobility restrictions.
Having the extra track will also let the Cog secure cars or engines in cases of extreme weather and when requiring repair, said Duval.
Presby told the planning board that pursuant to an 1894 agreement between the then owners of the Auto Road and Cog, the latter has and continues to enjoy certain property rights atop Mount Washington.
After Presby left the meeting, Howie Wemyss, who is the Auto Road’s general manager, told the planning board that the Auto Road has a significantly different interpretation of the 1894 agreement.
“I’ll be at the (June 19) public hearing to look out for our interests,” said Wemyss, adding he was less concerned about the Cog’s proposed 110-foot track extension and platform construction than about the larger claims Presby may present.
Before the tracks were removed in 2014, Auto Road patrons had to go up and over them to get to the Sherman Adams Building, said Wemyss, whereas now they can walk directly to it from the stairs that lead down to parking lots.