By Karen D. Lorentz
Almost 18 years after leasing the Mount Sunapee ski area in Newbury, N.H. with the understanding that they would be able to expand the existing ski area as well as improve it, Okemo operators Tim and Diane Mueller—also operators of Crested Butte in Colorado—received some good news.
On April 6, the Governor and Executive Council of the State of New Hampshire approved a decision by the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) to allow Mount Sunapee to move forward with the West Bowl Expansion project which the Muellers had first proposed in 2000 as an alternative to the East side expansion promised in their lease.
However, state, local and federal permits still need to be obtained for the $12-$15 million project. Mount Sunapee Resort Vice President and General Manager Jay Gamble explained that the permit process could take a year or more as the area has to engage in environmental studies and site engineering among other planning in order to apply for the permits.
The West Bowl Expansion would add 56 acres of skiing terrain with four top-to-bottom runs with snowmaking and a 5,100-foot-long high-speed quad chairlift. The terrain is located on the western flank of Mount Sunapee (skiers’ left of the Outer Ridge Trail) and will be primarily for intermediate and advanced intermediate ability levels. The base area will have a small base lodge, parking and a beginner area serviced by a carpet lift.
The project also will create another entrance to Mount Sunapee and will be approximately two miles up Brook Road off Route 103 in Goshen where the West Bowl is located.
As part of the approval decision, 150 acres of privately owned land outside the current Mount Sunapee State Park boundary will be donated to the State Park and will be added to the ski area leasehold within the Sunapee State Park. This parcel includes segments of the trails, lift and snowmaking for the West Bowl expansion. Another 260 acres will be donated by Mount Sunapee for conservation lands for a total of 410 acres to be donated and added to the Mount Sunapee State Park.
DRED approval and conditions
With strong local support for the expansion, the Town of Goshen voted in March 2014 to create the Mount Sunapee Recreational District which is zoned to accept the West Bowl expansion. Additionally, selectmen from five surrounding towns submitted letters to DRED supporting Mount Sunapee’s “Revised five-year master development plan,” which was submitted to DRED in June 2014.
After releasing a draft decision in April 2015 and holding hearings and reviewing comments on that draft, DRED Commissioner Jeff Rose issued a revised final decision (on March 17, 2016), which also approved Mount Sunapee’s environmental management plan (EMP), and submitted a lease amendment (needed for the expansion to proceed) to Governor Maggie Hassan and the Executive Council for their approval.
In his decision, the commissioner noted that, “While the foundation of the plan remains largely intact, several substantive changes have been made to the RMDP/EMP based largely on public comments.”
One provision requires the transfer of the 260 acres of land to be made prior to construction of West Bowl. A deed restriction on 52 of those acres prohibits any future development or incorporation into the ski area there.
Among other changes was a decision to eliminate ski trails within an existing 16-acre Exemplary Natural Community (ENC) tract, including under the chairlift. To minimize any soil disturbance there, trees are to be cut flush to ground level (versus stumping) and hand digging (versus blasting) of chairlift tower foundations is required. The commissioner noted that 70 to 90 acres of the 260-acre transfer for conservation lands are “worthy of being designated a part of the ENC,” a nice gain for the environment.
The reconfiguration of the ski trails in the West Bowl also reduces the Summit Trail crossings from six to three and ensures that the hiking trail will keep its current configuration.
A “conditions letter” signed by relevant parties also outlines 23 conditions that govern the RMDP approval so as to “clarify the relationships between all parties and avoid ambiguity,” Rose noted.
Benefits for rec, economy, resort
Rose also pointed out the economic benefits of the lease, noting the resort had invested $21 million in capital improvements since 1998, doubled skier visits, and paid nearly $8.5 million in lease payments to DRED.
Those lease payments enabled extensive upgrades to be made at the state-owned Cannon Mountain, which in turn increased its skier visits, and by enhancing its financial position provided critical revenue to help support the entire New Hampshire State Parks system.
Rose added that prior to the lease no tax revenues were received from Mount Sunapee State Park by the towns of Newbury and Goshen, but since 1998 Newbury received about $2.3 million and Goshen $275,000. An economic analysis shows potential property tax increases for both towns as additional benefits from the expansion, and Rose pointed to potential tax revenue increases to the state as well as additional employment in the region.
The decision also adds a 10-year lease option to the lease signed in 1998. Gamble explained that the original 20-year lease period is up June 30, 2018, and that just two additional 10-year lease renewal options had been offered. As part of the West Bowl project, the state offered a third 10-year option which helps to both make up for the lost time (when the expansion project was held up) and also provides for a longer time to realize a return on the major West Bowl investment. Gamble noted that the resort has already agreed to its second renewal option.
While the original plan for West Bowl had sought real estate development, Gamble said the Goshen Recreational District does not allow for it and that any future change would be up to the town. While the Muellers still own 246 acres in Goshen, there are currently no plans for development there, Gamble said.
Asked about the length of time to gain DRED approval, Gamble said that “It takes longer to get permits than in the 1980s due to the increased amount of regulations and the regulatory process being more complex. It requires diligent work.” He added that the Muellers’ perseverance was good for recreation (150 acres added to the state park), the environment (260 acres for conservation land), tourism and local and state economy. “DRED’s decision thoughtfully balances conservation, recreation and economic vitality, and recognizes our efforts to be good stewards of Mount Sunapee,” Gamble concluded.
Patience, perseverance and permits
For Mountain Times readers who follow the Killington Village saga and wonder about the approval process that resorts go through, the history of getting to yes at Mount Sunapee might be illuminating.
Originally the 1998 Mount Sunapee lease agreement called for following the state’s own 1960 plans for expansion on the East. Studies later uncovered “old growth forest characteristics” that precluded DRED from recommending that the Muellers move ahead with expansion there.
As a result, the Muellers suggested a ski area expansion known as the West Bowl with a 5,100-foot high-speed quad chairlift and approximately 75 acres of new ski trails, a small base lodge, and a parking lot. They incorporated this proposal into the 2000 master development plan the State required.
That plan met with approvals from DRED—with some conditions imposed and accepted. Much of the West Bowl expansion would be located on private land owned by the Muellers in the town of Goshen, as landowners there had approached them and sold them 656 acres in various parcels.
The Muellers ran into problems when the understanding they had achieved with DRED, regarding future expansion boundaries for the ski area, were not in sync with those delineated on the lease metes and bounds description signed by Governor Jeanne Shaheen in 1998. That the leasehold did not provide for expansion beyond the boundaries of the current ski area was a problem both the (former) commissioner of DRED and its attorney were willing to remedy (by an amendment) so as to include the land to the park’s western and northern boundaries as had been promised at the time of the lease.
However, there were those who opposed the expansion of the leasehold area so the lease was never amended. The State of New Hampshire had required the Muellers to list all potential land uses of the private Goshen acreage, and they had mentioned the potential for developing slopeside lodging/real estate at the base area of the West Bowl.
“The opposition seized on that one element of the MDP in an attempt to block the overall expansion of the ski area to the West Bowl area. We presented a comprehensive long-term master development plan for Mount Sunapee, and not a real estate development plan or condo plan as the opposition called it,” noted Gamble (2010 author interview).
The next governor, John Lynch, opposed expanding the leasehold to permit the expansion to state land in the West Bowl. He was opposed to a private enterprise “developing public land for private gain.” Additionally, since he had veto power, Governor Lynch refused to refer the matter of the leasehold expansion to the Executive Council, which advises the governor on contract matters.
His refusal to even present the request to them was a serious setback for the Muellers, who felt they were not being heard and their lease and understanding with DRED ignored. They also felt that they were being misrepresented to the public.
By December 2004, the National Park Service had told the state it would not object to the proposed expansion of the ski area. “The Park Service approval shows the expansion is consistent with the federal grant that helped build the ski area originally,” Gamble had noted at the time.
The Muellers offered to donate additional land to the state park to offset the creation of 50 acres of trails in the West Bowl. Lynch continued to object, and the Muellers sought relief through the Merrimack County Superior Court in October 2007.
In April 2009, their lawsuit was turned aside by a summary judgment ruling in favor of the State of New Hampshire. The Muellers appealed the ruling and remained hopeful that they might ultimately prevail regarding the interpretation of the leasehold.
Successful at the State Supreme Court and finally with the trial court, the Muellers’ patience and continued efforts to say nothing of their willingness to listen to opponents and make concessions have led to an agreement that would allow them to be complete the expansion. This is good news for holders of Okemo passes that are also good at Mount Sunapee as well as for the College 4.0 passholders who can ski at Killington, Pico, Okemo, and Sunapee.
But when asked about any continued opposition to the expansion project given all the conditions imposed by DRED, Tim Mueller said in an email to the Mountain Times, “Some opponents have said that they are going to sue the State to try and reverse the decision. If they do, I am very confident that they will not win, but suits can take a lot of time.”
Mueller added, “We are pleased to have the approval. The process was an exhaustive and factual one that will benefit the state park and the environment. The decision also meets the need for Mount Sunapee Resort to be completed and remain competitive in the challenging ski industry.”
He also credited working with Commissioner Rose since 2013 with enabling progress to be made and added that “the additional 10-year lease option is appreciated for all of the delays and will allow Mount Sunapee to recoup the investment that will be made in the West Bowl Project once permits are received.”
In explaining their perseverance, Mueller said that he and Diane have always “expected some bumps in the road when undertaking projects. However, these were more than bumps in the road,” he said.
Despite that, they “still have faith in the process and believe that through good communication we can prevail. We take pleasure in improving ski areas so that they become successful, sustainable mountain resorts that meet guest expectations and take pride in creating jobs and contributing to a region’s social and economic fabric,” he added.