The Executive Council gave the green light for the potential expansion of Mount Sunapee by Vail Resorts in a 3-2 decision on Wednesday, months after the resort company took over operations.
After lengthy debate, councilors opted to amend the lease to make available a 150-acre tract of land for development of ski trails, chairlifts and lodges. The new provisions also allow Vail to develop recreational trails, retail stores, food concessions, ski schools and other ski-related structures on the land, subject to state and local approval.
The move mirrored a vote in 2016 in which the council first approved the potential development for the Newbury, N.H., ski area. But circumstances this time around were radically different.
In June, the 20-year owners of the ski area, Tim and Diane Mueller, announced a deal to sell Vail the lease and operating rights for the site, which sits on state-owned land. That lease transfer was approved by the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, or DNCR, in September.
But left hanging was the question of the “West Bowl” expansion, which needed reapproval after the transfer of the lease. Local advocates and environmentalists have long opposed the development of the land, which they say would disrupt precious forest habitat that the state should help preserve.
On Wednesday, the council chose to restore the option for Vail, with some championing the development as a potential economic boon.
“I think we all recognize that there’s important language in here that’s going to protect the state’s interests going forward,” said Councilor Chris Pappas, a Manchester Democrat recently elected to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District on Capitol Hill. “The gist of the expansion language had already been approved by the council in 2016. I supported it then; I anticipate supporting it now.”
For Councilor Joseph Kenney, the calculus was simple: Vail should get the same benefits as its predecessors.
“It’s my judgment that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” the Union, N.H., Republican said. “We should allow the new ownership to have that same expansion opportunity in the future.”
But others raised transparency concerns. While the language sets parameters for expansion, there currently areno detailed plans for the council to review, noted Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord. And with the addition of the new language, the Executive Council no longer has direct oversight, he continued.
“I think (the expansion plan) makes good business sense” Volinsky said. “But I don’t think we’re doing our responsibility to give Vail carte blanche to improve and expand toward the Western bowl without seeing a detailed, specific plan.”
Councilor Russell Prescott, a Republican from Kingston, N.H., also raised transparency concerns, calling the lease a “long-term disaster for the state of New Hampshire.”
“There is no — absolutely no — checks and balances on this amendment,” he said. “We are at a quandary. If we pass it today, and it’s binding, it’ll be a fight.”
But Kenney retorted that the lease language stipulates that approval of any expansion would be needed from both the state DNCR and area planning authorities.
“What’s being presented is that this is a runaway train and that the council is going to be left on the sidelines,” Kenney said. “And I don’t think we are. I think we have good commissioners and longtime, experienced directors who are going to put in place what’s going to be right for New Hampshire.”
Kenney joined Pappas and Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, in voting in favor of the provision; Volinsky and Prescott voted against.
The council also voted on two measures to tighten state oversight over the operation of the mountain and future lease transfers.
Despite Wednesday’s vote, it is unclear whether development of the land will materialize. While given the option under the 2016 lease amendment, the Muellers never acted on it themselves. At an information session in June, a representative from Vail said the resort had no immediate plans for expansion, but did not rule it out in the future.
Still, some opponents of an expansion weren’t optimistic.
“The idea what we can just put in a ski lift that has a few trails on it, that has minimal economic benefit for the state, and sacrifice that part of Mount Sunapee state park is (wrong)” said Steve Russell, president of the Friends of Mount Sunapee organization, which has advocated against expansion. “It makes it extremely difficult to go back.”
But Gov. Chris Sununu, the former CEO of Waterville Valley ski area who abstained from the 2016 vote as an Executive Councilor, praised the council’s decision and said that the lease language did not mean an expansion plan was a done deal.
“This was the most robust discussion on … the Sunapee issue that’s happened in 20 years,” Sununu said. “The discussion is definitely not over — in terms of what the oversight will be, how we’ll proceed, what flexibility and oversight powers both the local and the state will have on future development, how that will play out.”