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Town rigid on zip line, gondola and SKRMA

November 22, 2018

Though town councilors haven’t technically voted on anything yet, the elected officials unanimously decided not to allow a zip line and gondola to cut across Phil Baux Park.

“The way I read the tea leaves,” Councilor Bob Lenz said, “I don’t think the public wants a zip line.”

The council clarified its stance on landing a zip line and gondola in the town-owned Phil Baux Park and many other Snow King details during a three-day meeting marathon.

After listening to dozens of people at a lengthy public hearing and spending two days debating their own takes on the Town Hill, the council reached a few major decisions on what is the most significant town development issue in years.

Regarding other critical aspects of the Snow King master plan, the outcome remains uncertain.

“We have a lot of blanks we need to fill in,” Councilor Jim Stanford said.

Another meeting

The council hopes to fill in some of those blanks at a special meeting Dec. 4, when Snow King representatives will provide documentation explaining the Snow King Resort Master Association, the conglomeration of property owners in the resort district that remains a central question in the council’s discussion.

Two facts complicate the situation: The U.S. Forest Service is conducting a parallel review that may influence the council’s decisions, but it will not be complete for months. In turn, the council’s decisions may alter Snow King’s proposals.

Jeff Golightly, vice president of Gardner Capital Management, which owns Snow King, explained that the “gives and gets” of the updated master plan are intimately intertwined, two sides of a ledger that must be balanced. If they can’t build a zip line, for example, they may need to make adjustments.

“The point we’d like to make,” he said, “is please consider these gives and gets as a package.”

Park politics

The most contentious aspects of the master plan stemmed from the hallowed ground of Phil Baux Park.

Most who objected to any of Snow King’s proposals did so first and foremost to a zip line, arguing it would further Disneyfy a mountain already verging on being an amusement park. The council said unequivocally that no zip line would be allowed in the area, known as the West Portal.

They left open the possibility of the ride landing on town land on the east side of the mountain, where the alpine coaster sits. And even if the Town Council forbids the zip line outright, the Forest Service may allow it to land on forest land farther up.

The second major proposal in the park area is a gondola that originally would have landed near Snow King Avenue at the base of the mountain. Critics have argued that bisecting the park would be tantamount to ruining a cherished community haunt.

“I think what’s important,” Mayor Pete Muldoon said, “is that we don’t impair the park as it currently is for the users and the uses that we have there now.”

Muldoon worried about massive crowds forming to ride the eight-person gondola, capable of hoisting 2,400 people to the summit per hour. But because it’s six times faster than the lifts, Golightly said, lines would likely stay short.

The council agreed that a gondola farther up the hill, still on town land, could be acceptable. That could mean reconstructing the park, with a few possible arrangements. They deferred a decision on the final design of the park and the gondola to a later date, when the public would have a chance to weigh in.

Snow King Mountain Resort General Manager Ryan Stanley also offered a new option. The Cougar and Summit lifts, both aging, could be replaced by a single gondola.

Stanford, frequently the voice of skepticism and frustration on Snow King matters, protested the late addition.

“How is it,” he asked, “that at the 11th hour we’re being asked to consider yet another configuration that nobody … has had the chance to consider?”

Stanley’s response pointed to another complicating factor in this process: Snow King responds to comments from the public and governing bodies by adjusting its proposals, but that makes it difficult for everyone to stay up to date.

“We have been doing our very best to respond to commentary along the way,” Stanley said. “We want to work cooperatively towards a good outcome for everybody.”

Gives and gets

The Snow King Resort Master Association, one of the most esoteric aspects of the master plan, is one of the great unanswered questions that remains.

According to the original master plan, the group has a wide range of responsibilities, the “gives” it signed up for in exchange for certain “gets” from the town, namely 950,000 square feet of development potential.

“The master association is woven throughout the master plan from start to finish,” Stanford said, “and it is one of the central tasks facing this council today to untangle these kinds of promises and obligations in corresponding with development rights that persist today.”

Critics argue some of the obligations — which range from employee housing to parking to recreation — have gone unfulfilled since the original master plan took effect in 2000.

The original master plan states that SKRMA is entitled to collect dues from property owners, renters and resort guests to use that money to cover “all of SKRMA’s costs.”

The town is still working to decipher how the master association works and what should be required of it. Stanley said he would give the town more information about how the group is structured at the Dec. 4 meeting.

But even without that information councilors agreed on a few points. They want to impose a fee on SKRMA and require annual reports on its finances and how it is fulfilling its obligations.

The councilors also wanted clarification on what entities are in SKRMA, another point of confusion.

“I think it’s important that we know who’s in and who ain’t,” Councilor Don Frank said. “And if they ain’t, why not.”

A convention center?

Another little-known fact about the Snow King master plan is that its foundation was not skiing, but a convention center.

This centerpiece of a “vibrant mixed-use resort complex” was slated for the parcel known as KM6, a gravel parking lot between Phil Baux Park and the Snow King Hotel. The owners have said they have no plans for the lot and asked the town to leave it out of the master plan amendment.

However, they did ask the council to remove the section regarding the convention center, calling it an outdated vision the town no longer needs or wants. But Stanford argues that is the same as discussing the KM6 parcel, considering they were linked so strongly.

“When you crack open the master plan and you start beginning to change some of the language that influences the overall concept,” he said, “the whole thing is on the table.”

Wary of deleting the master plan without having a new one to replace it, the council kept the convention center in. As Stanford said, snipping it out would “pose all kinds of repercussions through the entire master plan document.”

The council acknowledged it will have to revisit KM6.

“I think it’s something that we’re going to have to keep in the back of our minds,” Muldoon said. “There’s a part of this missing.”

Out of sync

The mismatch between the town and Forest Service’s review processes has been a source of heartburn for many members of the public, Stanford in particular.

He argues that because the forest’s draft environmental impact statement is not due until mid-2019, the council can’t make informed decisions about certain aspects of the plan. For example, greater traffic at the summit because of a restaurant could suggest a different solution to parking and transportation at the base.

“We can’t really weigh in until the Forest Service has done its work,” Stanford said.

On the other hand, the reverse is true in a sense for the Forest Service. “Somebody has to go first,” as Golightly said. With that in mind, the council will likely send a letter to the forest to give it an idea of where to direct its efforts, based on the council’s feelings so far.

“We should let them know things we’re generally in favor of,” Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson said, “or definitely not in favor of.”

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