CONCORD — Vail Resorts, the new operator of state-owned Mount Sunapee ski area, has won the right to expand the resort to adjacent properties known as the West Bowl thanks to a 3-2 vote of the Executive Council on Wednesday.
The decision, which has been months in the making, drew immediate criticism from those who for years have fought against Sunapee expansion.
“It’s never been the right thing for the people of New Hampshire to obligate themselves to the West Bowl expansion,” said Tom Elliott, a former executive director of Friends of Mount Sunapee.
Elliott said the council’s vote was a missed opportunity to renegotiate the expansion with Vail and said the issue was far from over.
He said using state land to help a private company enrich itself is fundamentally opposed to the whole idea of state parks.
“I thought state parks were for protecting land for all the generations to come,” Elliott said.
The previous leaseholder, The Sunapee Difference, owned 675 acres of undeveloped land west of the park, including about 150 acres that for years have been eyed for park expansion.
The private land was sold to Vail along with the lease to operate the ski resort, subject to state approval.
Vail has said in public hearings on the lease transfer that it has no immediate plans to develop the land, but would like to keep the same development options that were available to the previous leaseholder.
First approved in 2016
The controversial West Bowl expansion, although never implemented, was approved by the governor and Executive Council in 2016 over the strong objections of conservationists and many neighbors of the resort.
Democratic Councilor Andru Volinsky and Republican Councilor Russell Prescott on Wednesday voted against the contract amendment with Vail to again authorize the expansion when and if Vail decides to proceed.
“I don’t think we are fulfilling our responsibility if we give Vail carte blanche to improve and expand toward the West Bowl without seeing a detailed, specific plan. So I am opposed,” Volinsky said.
Prescott argued even more vociferously against the amendment.
“We’ve read there are 250 condos that have been considered for this property in the past. Is it 250 or 20 or 10?” he asked in questioning officials from the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, who endorsed the lease amendment.
“Where is the parking lot? How many easements are needed? None of this information has been brought forward. This is not ready for us to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to.”
Three ‘yes’ votes
But three councilors — Republicans Joseph Kenney and David Wheeler and Democrat Chris Pappas — were convinced that as a matter of fairness, it would be difficult for the state to deny Vail the same contract terms that were available to the previous lease-holder and not a good way to start business with a new partner.
“It’s my judgment that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Kenney said. “We should allow the new ownership to have that same opportunity in the future.”
“This is being presented as a runaway train with the council being left on the sidelines,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case. We have a good commissioner and long-serving directors who are capable of protecting the interests of New Hampshire.”
Jack Savage, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, says his group is already in discussions with Vail about possible acquisition of the West Bowl area and adjacent lands for conservation.
Kenney and others pointed out that the amendment does not constitute a blank check for Vail to proceed as it sees fit, and that local land-use regulations and other state requirements would have to be honored should an expansion plan be presented at some point in the future.
“This was the most robust discussion on the Sunapee issue that’s happened in 20 years. It was a very valuable discussion,” Gov. Chris Sununu said after the vote.
“Councilor Prescott did an incredible job of bringing a lot of very important issues to the forefront, so the discussion is definitely not over.”
Skiers on Sunapee’s slopes Wednesday were generally in favor of expanding the resort to add ski terrain, but leery of adding more housing development.
“You want the resort to be financially successful,” said Sam McCord, 31, of Enfield.
McCord said a balance needs to be struck between finding ways to have the park succeed and be financially viable for the future, and preserving what makes Sunapee special in the first place. “The beauty of the area is all of the greenery,” he said.
Supporters of developing the West Bowl to add more ski terrain say that would give Sunapee a more even playing field when it comes to competing with other ski resorts. The West Bowl expansion will add new trails as well as a new entrance to the resort.
McCord, however, is not in favor of adding more real estate development, such as condominiums.
Tim Knowles, 26, from Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass., said more ski terrain at Sunapee would help keep him and other skiers coming back instead of heading to Okemo or another resort with more ski trails.
“More trails would be good,” Knowles said.
Sunapee is close enough to Boston to make it into a day trip, so Knowles doesn’t see the need to add condominiums to the area. He’d rather keep the green space. “I don’t think condominium units are needed here,” Knowles said.
Charlie Hildt, 25, from Somerville, Mass., also said condominiums don’t make sense around Sunapee. “It would take away from the skiing,” he said.
But like the others, Hildt thinks more ski terrain developed in the West Bowl would help draw people to Sunapee.