Local News

Facing obstacles: History lessons after an important apology bring hope for progress

By Karen D. Lorentz posted May 23, 2012

On April 23, VPR aired a commentary by Bill Mares that confirmed a long held misgiving. Sometimes critics don’t give credence to intelligent leaders because the critics have an agenda that is less than totally honest or a passion that is more personal than legitimate.

Most Killington and Rutland County residents will likely recall the 1987 bumper sticker “KILLINGTON, WHERE THE AFFLUENT MEET THE EFFLUENT.”

Mares made a public apology regarding that bumper sticker in his commentary.

It came about because water is now being recognized as a precious commodity that is not unlimited and is a major concern for the future of our country and the planet.

As the host of the program noted, Americans have long had a tendency to regard water “as an almost unlimited commodity, equally suitable for washing, watering the garden and drinking.”

The host went on to introduce Vermonter Bill Mares as a writer and commentator – also a former teacher and state legislator – who thinks “that attitude is changing.” What he had to say could not be more timely.


The apology to Killington

Mares said, “Twenty-five years ago, a fellow legislator Don Cioffi and I made fun of Killington Ski Area for their plan to spray treated sewage water onto the slopes. We created a bogus “Vermont Association for Sanitary Skiing” and made up a bumper sticker, in white and brown, naturally, which read: KILLINGTON, WHERE THE AFFLUENT MEET THE EFFLUENT.

“There were a few hours of amusement and annoyance in the State House, and we returned to our business. Now the joke is on me. Killington was way ahead of its time.

“Living as I do in view of Lake Champlain, it’s hard to think that there’s a water crisis, but growth, drought and the effects of global climate change are taking a toll, especially in the arid West.”

In a nutshell, he has come to see that the re-use of water is as important, viable, and critical for Vermont as it is for the West, which faces a water shortage.

He concluded with this:

“San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders became an advocate, and authorized focus groups and public relations campaigns. He now says, ‘The public is worried about scarcity. If science is behind you and you can prove that, I think people are willing to listen.'”

“The San Diego Times Tribune agreed. An editorial headline read ‘Yuck factor. Get over it!’

“The inflammatory catch-phrase ‘toilet to tap’ is giving way to what one advocate calls “toilet to treatment to treatment to treatment to tap.

“Getting back to Lake Champlain. The exit pipe for my treated sewage is not a half-mile from the intake pipe for my drinking water. And when I think of all the other treatment plants feeding into the Lake – well – I’d like to offer Killington a belated but sincere apology!”

You can read or listen to the entire commentary at www.VPR.net (mares-recycled-water) to understand Mares’ reasons for acknowledging that 1987 misguided thinking.


A Little History

The point here is not to stir up animosity about the past but to use it to think about the present and future, particularly the Act 250 process for Killington Village.

Note that Mares admits to “bogus” tactics. To my knowledge Mares was not a leader of ‘environmental groups’ that targeted Killington to prevent growth in the 1980s, although he was having “fun” at Killington’s expense (obviously because he was aware of anti-growth sentiment regarding the area.)

Many groups saw Killington as the biggest, most successful ski area and, therefore, one that would garner media attention for any points, bogus or legit, that such groups wished to make.

Bottom line: Killington would have the resources to respond to delay tactics or survive such public humiliations precisely because it was a terrific, well-run and profitable ski resort. Target a smaller area and such groups would have raised an outcry by potentially putting the area out of business.

In 1982, Killington developed a new master plan and pursued disposal of treated wastewater for its proposed village center that required a Class-C zone in the Ottauquechee River. It was granted, but opponents successfully appealed in Superior Court. Years later the designation was upheld by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision that said the “Water Resources Board did not act arbitrarily, unreasonably or contrary to law.” The July 1990 ruling paved the way for filing permits and plans proceeded for the village.

But during the delay of four and a half years, the economy had soured. It was 1989 and a severe recession set in so the window of opportunity for selling village condo units had bypassed the resort. Areas like Stratton, Smugglers, Pico and Ascutney did build villages in the 1980s.


Green Lights and Red Lights

While opposition groups did delay Killington progress and a village core, environmental groups sometimes inadvertently do ski areas a favor. This happened at Okemo in 1993 when the area was growing and trying to expand snowmaking.

Long story short, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) wanted Okemo to build a snowmaking pond.

Former Okemo VP Dan Petraska said, “It wasn’t just a matter of the money, which was substantial [$1.5 million]; it was a matter that the mountain might never need to use the pond during some winters.”

Owners Tim and Diane Mueller had noted, the timing for the extra $1 million expense “was bad” for them, but explained that their “last water withdrawal battle had cost $200,000 plus three years of delays” so they had pursued the pond as the prudent thing to do.

Not only did the pond work out extremely well for Okemo during the low natural snow and erratic weather seasons that followed, Okemo doubled the pond’s size several years ago and their snowmaking continues to be a major reason for their success.

The Muellers understood their predicament, but rather than delay their progress with a yellow caution light (i.e., another court battle), they chose expediency and went with the more costly “green light.”

That was a lesson Killington never really got until Senator Jim Jeffords from Shrewsbury intervened in November 1989. That mean-spirited bumper sticker had contributed to an antagonistic atmosphere and, thus, an unwillingness to do the expedient thing on the part of the area’s founder, Pres Smith. Rather than collaborate with environmentalists, which Killington management regarded as “no-growthers,” they fought back.

There were instances when Killington could have done things that moved them forward but refused to do so due to a sense of coercion and a strong feeling that they shouldn’t have to buy their way into progress.

As a partial result, Smith became a ‘poster child’ for what was bad for the environment by no less than the governor of Vermont in the 1980s (Kunin called Killington and Smith “a good enemy” and got lots of political mileage out of the resort which she notes in her book Living A Political Life).

All of that contributed to Killington getting a bad environmental reputation. One National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) staff member was quoted in the national press as saying, “Killington has a terrible environmental reputation.”

Such an image, bogus as it was, also contributed to a feeling that the opposition might be right and Killington must be bad and denied growth.

Never mind that NSAA gave Killington a prestigious national Silver Eagle Award for Excellence in Water Conservation in 1994.

In fact, Killington had a sterling environmental track record. Killington had never polluted, engaged in rapid development, been cited for an environmental violation, received a fine or had to enter into ‘an assurance of discontinuance” with the Enforcement Division of ANR, (the late) Carl Spangler told me, an assessment several former presidents of the ski area confirmed.

But the image problem became a red light to Killington’s progress.

Then Senator Jeffords got involved and began a mediation process that ultimately resulted in a January 1991 Agreement among some 30 parties that addressed a slew of issues and paved the way for Killington to expand in the direction of Pico (while giving up ski development in Parker’s Gore, which environmentalists claimed for bear habitat).

Killington was in the process of merging with Pico – at Pico’s request – and had successfully managed the area. But onerous permit conditions – particularly making Killington financially responsible for traffic jams in Woodstock or Rutland during foliage season – and the lack of approvals for additional water and parking or a crossing to Pico nixed the merger for Killington.

Despite village plans that had existed since 1968, Killington remains the only major resort in Vermont not to have a walk-around village center. Less than one-third of the original 400-acre PUD plan was built in a 30-year period (1968-1998) with progress only made in outlying clusters of condominiums and inns.

The new industry model in the 1990s centered on real estate and particularly interval ownership, which would lock owners into, visits and, thus, propel skier visit growth. Killington looked for a partner to do that because its founders preferred to accomplish growth through ski area operations (building trails and lifts was their area of expertise and hence means to growth,) but they came up empty when they looked for someone to build that village core in 1990.

With the future stymied at Killington, S-K-I (Killington’s parent company) looked for investment opportunities outside Vermont, acquired other areas, and subsequently put the company up for sale. Les Otten’s LBO Enterprises bought S-K-I in 1996.

Pursuing Green Lights

When he took over Killington in 1996, Les Otten tried hard to find out where the “green lights” were, saying he could accept red lights but the yellow caution signals were to be avoided as time consuming and wasteful. He thought it would be better to discuss issues with environmental groups, heed their concerns, and have Killington become an environmental leader.

In fact, he worked collaboratively with both the state and various environmental groups to effect the Parker’s Gore/Village land exchange that would enable Killington to develop a true village in a “state designated growth center” on land Killington would own (previously leased from the state).

Otten made many improvements to the ski area, including: the K-1 Gondola, Ramshead Family Center, three new chairlifts; and the Grand Hotel. He also rescued Pico from bankruptcy in 1996 and planned to build an “interconnect” between the two areas.

But he, too, got tied up with appeals and opposition to his plans despite the concessions he made.

After a year of delays, appeals, and many hearings, the State of Vermont issued approvals for the Interconnect and use of Woodward Reservoir (for water withdrawals for snowmaking) in August 1998 but further appeals delayed the snowmaking pipeline project to 2000.

Difficult weather seasons struck with a vengeance in both the East and West in the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 seasons, and, with ASC not doing well financially and Killington affected as well, the Interconnect which had been delayed by earlier appeals was put on hold indefinitely.

Looking back in 2008, a rueful Otten said, “The extreme end of environmentalists know if they can delay you long enough, you’ll run out [of money] – our pockets were not deep enough to hang on long enough. We tried. We put in money but were unable to get a return on investment.

“The only thing we could do was the hotel, but they wouldn’t let us put a lift in to the other side of the pond. We ran into the same walls that Pres did – we did what we could do.”

(Interestingly, a CLF staffer made a presentation to a group of ski writers at Loon Mountain in 2001 in which he said that Killington didn’t need to build a village because “people could stay in Rutland.” Bogus arguments were applied even to Otten who had been invited to join the CLF Board in 1998!)

Otten also acknowledged his failure in overextending ASC financially, the public company he created to take his acquisition streak West, where he developed three of the country’s most valuable ski properties: the Canyons (which Vail Resorts sued purchaser Talisker over because they wanted to buy it so badly); Steamboat, which commanded the second highest price ever paid for a ski resort when ASC later sold it to Intrawest; and Heavenly Valley, which Vail Resorts bought and thrived on).

What he did accomplishment toward the progress of Killington, however, was getting all parties to agreed to the “growth center designation” for Killington.


History Lessons

There are history lessons here worthy of consideration as SP Land Company and Killington Pico Ski Partners go forward with the Act 250 process for Killington Village.

Most notably are the considerable master planning efforts made by both ASC and SP Land. Both companies shared plans at community forums, sought input for their plans, listened to suggestions and concerns, made changes accordingly, and continued to invite feedback. They have recognized that without citizen support and a beautiful and healthy environment there would be no resort or business opportunities.

Mares’ apology is a reminder that not all people understand just how forward thinking and environmentally correct Killington has been and continues to be.

Forest and Parks Department commended Preston Smith, an agricultural major at Earlham College, a Quaker school, the for his ski-area development practices early on. Yet along the way he was perceived as fair game for public ridicule (i.e. for recycling treated wastewater) and humiliated by accusations that he was “raping the land” (his words). He was very sensitive to that so it is little wonder that, as a person of principle, he did not easily bend to yellow lights.

Killington had been a good steward and citizen under Smith’s watch, and Otten continued that as has owner Powdr Corp, which has a “reduce, reuse, recycle, and rethink” vision to stop global warming via a variety of energy saving and carbon cutting initiatives.

Otten did a $1.5 million pipeline project to obtain water from Woodward Reservoir for snowmaking and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Farm and Wilderness for camper scholarships and to the state to buy another parcel of land for a bear corridor as part of the overall Parker’s Gore land exchange (for land on which to build the village center).

Yet, during the pipeline project a homeowner along Route 100 said, “I can go away and not oppose the pipeline for some season passes.”

Such attempts at extortion point out the need to differentiate between legitimate and bogus opponents.

Mares’ apology is also a reminder that it is tempting for people to divide or taint public opinion. People with real concerns should be heard, of course, but bogus claims and stall tactics need to be recognized as such, should they develop creating obstacles once again.

When the time comes for a link-up of Pico with Killington (the “interconnect” is still on the drawing board), citizens need to recall the history of concessions made to pave the way for this to occur, just as they need to look carefully at any opposition that arises for the “growth center” where the village will be built.

At this juncture in the ski area’s and town’s history, the past is a critical component that should not be overlooked by Killington’s owners or townspeople. Mares’ apology marks the importance of not forgetting and underscores that the time for coming together as a community to support a world-class village to go with a world-class ski area is at hand.


Karen Lorentz is a ski historian and the author of the Killington, A Story of Mountains and Men, a history of the ski resort.

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