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Killington meets with state officials to better understand obstacles to growth

On Thursday, Feb. 28 Jim Haff, former Selectman, hosted a meeting with state representatives at the offices of SP Land Company to discuss some recent developments in Town of Killington and some of the roadblocks preventing faster progress. The meeting was attended by Steve Selbo, president of SP Land, Mike Solimano, president and general manager of Killington Resort and Pico Mountain, Seth Webb, Killington town manager, and Tao Smith, headmaster of Killington Mountain School, who each briefed the panel on projects underway and long term goals. Also in attendance were Phil Black, owner of the Lookout Tavern, representing the Killington Chamber, Vito Rasenas, self-described "community activist," and Jeff Temple, director of mountain operations at Killington/Pico. Representatives from the state included Secretary Lawrence Miller from Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Kiersten Bourgeois, senior project manager with the Agency of Commerce and the new contact for Connect Vermont, and Christine Thompson director of Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division.

The two hour meeting was educational, even if solutions were not always forthcoming.

After presenting an overview of the Village Master Plan, Selbo explained an unusual obstacle he was facing in three regional planning commissions that had teamed up to insist upon a legacy agreement from 1998 (made when American Ski Company owned Killington and had their own village plan.) That agreement would hold SP Land partially responsible for over 130 miles of roads and 17 major intersections along the Routes 4/100/103 corridors. The three planning commissions working together are Rutland RPC, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee RPC and Southern Windsor Country RPC, Selbo said. They are three of the 11 total regional planning commissions in the state.


"Regional planning commissions get money from VTrans, so it's good to know when they are off-rail," said Secretary Miller.

According to Selbo, the three planning commissions continue to insist upon the legacy agreement despite the fact that VTrans approved the traffic impact study for the first phase of the project and found there to be minimal impact on transportation. Selbo says there has been an ongoing attempt to speak with the executive directors of the regional planning commissions but little progress has been made. He noted that the new executive director of the Rutland RPC, Kris Hughes, has brought a new opportunity to discuss the issues. SP Land believes progress is now being made with the Rutland RPC.

Vermont's Act 250, also known as the Land Use and Development Act, was established in 1970 to review large-scale development projects using 10 criteria designed to safeguard the environment, community life, and aesthetic character of the state.


SP Land has been working toward developing the Village at the base of Killington Resort since 2008. They completed their Act 250 submittal in February of 2012 and have been "working with ANR since to come up with agreeable solutions to a couple of items, which we hope to have wrapped up next week," said Selbo. Four weeks of open evidence will follow, which Selbo hopes will end by April. "It's been a long 14 month process."

Secretary Miller said that he is aware of this scenario. "There is a state initiative to give projects an early temperature check that is honest," he said, that way money and time will not be wasted. "90% of all permits are on time and with no conditions," Miller continued. "But this project is almost exactly what Act 250 was designed for."

Secretary Miller is well aware that the process can take a long time to get through, but thinks the SP Land's plans for a Village are "entirely consistent with Killington's general land use plan."


The timeline and general uncertainty, however, makes it very difficult for the resort and town to make other plans for development.

Killington Resort and Pico Mountain President Mike Solimano knows infrastructure at the Resort needs improvement, "especially our two main base lodges, Snowshed and Ramshead lodges" he noted, but says its difficult when "for 15 years we've been planning to rip them down." Indeed, most long-term plans depend largely on whether or not the Village will be built. "It determines the focus entirely," Solimano says.


The Resort and town have the capacity to feed and sleep thousands of visitors and the terrain to keep skiers and riders challenged and entertained, but without improvements to infrastructure, Killington is not able to keep up with its competitors, Solimano said.
"We hope the Village will contribute to increased destination visits, where people plan longer stays here," he said. "We have a really big resort that people want to come to for a week, we have the terrain, but we're missing some of the off-mountain things, that's where the growth is… we're trying to figure out how to pack in 50% more each day… we have a lot of excess capacity mid-week."

Waiting for the Village plans to go through, is holding up summer investments too, says Solimano. "It's hard to know where to invest in summer, when the plans keeps changing… do you go and build something in the middle up there based on one plan? We just don't know."


STATE INVESTMENT

Town Manager Seth Webb presented an overview of the Economic Development initiatives the Town is pursuing and discussed how state funds could continue to support the Town. His presentation reviewed investments in a municipal Golf Course, marketing and events, a feasibility study for creating a municipal water system in conjunction with the ski village, plans to enhance the gateway and Killington Road and more.

Webb also explained how Act 60, which took effect in 1997, has affected Killington small businesses and residents. He showed a chart illustrating the increase in property tax paid in 1996 compared with 2012, and noted that Killington competes with other resort communities beyond Vermont's boarders.


"Frankly, I really don't see a constitutional amendment happening to amend the state's responsibility for education… it is not likely to go from a state to a local responsibility," said Secretary Miller. "It was found that there was a fundamental failure of the state's education system and this was the solution they came up with," he said, admitting that the current policy is not a perfect solution either.

Miller strongly encouraged Killington not to expect any major change in the state tax structure, at least until 2015. "Equity in state-funded education is part of the Vermont Constitution and that is not going to change… we came out of the recession better than our neighboring states, so we are going to be careful not to mess up what is working with our tax policies."


Act 60, also known as the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, was signed into law in June 1997 in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision (Brigham v. State of Vermont) that said the state must provide "substantially equal access" to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they reside.


Miller pointed to the loss of population in Vermont schools as another big concern that has further driven up the cost of education per student. The problem is often attributed to the larger trend of Vermont losing population, but "Vermont is not declining faster than the rest of white America," Miller noted. "The problem is that we lack diversity here, the states that are growing have diverse populations… We need to be friendly and welcoming of ethnicity to our towns," Miller said.


Jim Haff, saw the tax burden as an opportunity for the state, suggesting that the state invest in Killington's growth, because "the state will get it back in alcohol, room and meals tax," he said, explaining that, if the leverage investment were to bring in an additional $3 million in spending, the state would make it back in taxes collected.


Secretary Miller said municipalities should use their own tax base for such investments in themselves. "That's exactly what a municipal tax is for," he said. Adding that the state simply does not have money to invest in economic development for individual towns. "The legislature is busy with low income housing and keeping peoples heat on… last year we had people freeze in their homes when we ran out of funds… we simply do not have the resources to invest in town's infrastructure for growth. It just isn't going to happen," he said. "I think we can all be creative when it comes to how to get things done smoother and more efficiently… those are the things we can do to help accelerate the process."


Miller went on to explain that the tourism industry in Vermont lost credibility in 2008 when an impact study that reported huge returns in tourism investments was easily shown to be over inflated. As a result, the state cut the tourism budget from $6 million to $2 million. The situation has improved slightly since Irene, Miller said, noting that the industry really came together to report "all roads open." There as been no criticism of tourist spending, since then, he said. But there has not been an increase either.

Tao Smith, headmaster of Killington Mountain School, the second largest business in Killington, told the panel about the significant growth the school has experienced over the last decade, and the positive economic impact KMS has had on the Town of Killington and the Resort. But he also said it was evident that "Killington suffers from lack of investment in infrastructure." When being compared to some of the other local offerings "some families are skipping by us," he said.


 KMS currently has about 300 families in the KMS weekend club, many of whom are desperate to make lifestyle change, Smith says. "I like to think of us as Killington's most loyal customers; you've got us rain or shine," he said.


Secretary Miller pointed to these families in addition to the thousands of weekend visitors that come to Killington each season as the audience that the town should be targeting for second home ownership and/or primary home ownership for those that can work remotely. "You have lifestyle to sell," he said.


Miller admitted that initial investments in growth are often high for a municipality like Killington, but explained that when a municipality invests in itself the return over time makes up for it. "It's like an arc," he said, explaining that the initial spending to bring more people in is eventually off-set by a larger and wealthier grand list on which to spread the tax burden.


The discussion came to an end with a greater understanding of the policies and some of the obstacles those policies create for growth.

Vito Rasenas concluded the meeting pleading for any help the state could give to move the Village progress along. "The rising tide lifts all boats," he said.