Mt. Sunapee expansion decision must be rejected

DRED’s proposed ‘compromise’ ignores the historical reasoning for public investment at Sunapee and all state parks

If you are an undecided voter wondering if you should vote for Maggie Hassan next November, carefully scrutinize her St. Patrick’s Day Sunapee Surprise.

On Thursday, Jeff Rose, Hassan’s commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, finally delivered a multi-hundred-million-dollar goldmine to a favored out-of-state corporate interest.

His “rainbow” requires Executive Council approval before the gilded real estate developer can claim the pot of gold. He intends to bring the expansion plan forward next Wednesday – just six days after its release.

At the moment, no public hearing or comment period is planned. Instead, councilors will be asked to approve a very complex legal agreement that further binds the people of New Hampshire to Okemo and the uncertain future of the ski industry.

On the council table will be a thick, slickly styled “Master Development Plan” engineered to convince the public that the DRED is proposing a “balanced,” “transparent” and “responsible” solution.

The new deal even promises a gift of additional land to the state park. Never mind that the state already invested rare public dollars in 1990 to buy an easement on one parcel. The other parcel sits at the top of the mountain, with steep slopes impossible to log, let alone develop.

Given the political operative heavyweights working for Okemo behind the scenes, we can’t be surprised at this highly orchestrated railroading. They are attempting to stage a masterful end run, clearly intended help Hassan put this thorny issue behind her a full eight months before the election.

Only the people of New Hampshire can stop this proposal, and preserve the original Sunapee compromise forged by Governor Shaheen nearly 20 years ago.

In 1998, Shaheen and the Legislature debated the leasing of the state-owned ski area within Mount Sunapee State Park. Together they forged a true New Hampshire compromise, one that allowed the privatization of ski operations while also promising to prohibit real estate development on both state-owned and private lands abutting the park.

Countless published quotes regarding “no real estate development” came from Shaheen, Okemo’s Tim Mueller, former NH Sen. Fred King, and other leaders. The Executive Council approved the original lease by a narrow 3-2 vote.

For nearly 15 years, Democratic governors have viewed Okemo’s expansion proposal with skepticism. This is in no small part because Okemo so clearly promised to never develop real estate. Pressed on his deceptions, Mueller told the Valley News in 2001: “I was referring to the present tense and not necessarily indicating the possibility of never doing anything in the future … Things change in life, and I guess that’s what happens.”

Shaheen wisely refused to consider the expansion in 2002. John Lynch – the longest-serving and most popular governor in New Hampshire history – opposed the expansion outright for eight years.

The last time DRED sent Okemo’s plan to the corner office, Lynch quickly cut to the heart of the matter. "The driving force behind this expansion request is to increase the value of a private condominium development. That does not meet the test of strong public interest," he said in May 2005. "For that reason, I remain firmly opposed."

Over the past forty years, the Muellers’ real estate efforts in Colorado and Vermont have generated unimaginable wealth. And since their first acquisitions of private land were exposed in 2001, their intentions have remained consistent: use the state park to incentivize lucrative real estate development that would never happen in Goshen, were it not for slope-side access to adjoining state-owned ski trails.

For over 100 years, Mount Sunapee's protected lands have served a higher purpose: the preservation of nature and humanity's quiet, gentle enjoyment of our rare and priceless natural heritage. New Hampshire’s park system is perhaps our most impressive accomplishment as a state. Our tradition of upholding the public trust and preserving land for future generations is fundamental to our granite character.

On Thursday, Hassan signaled the urgent undoing of this heritage. DRED’s proposed “compromise” ignores the historical reasoning for public investment at Mount Sunapee, and all our state parks. It forces us to ask an essential question: What are New Hampshire’s state parks for, and for whom?

I believe that Okemo’s expansion proposal undermines the core rationale for why we created state parks in the first place; to prevent the very type of reckless development that their expansion plan necessarily catalyzes.

In November 2012, Governor-elect Hassan said, “I generally thought that Governor Lynch’s views on this made sense.”

It would be wise for her to quickly revisit and embrace Lynch’s principled stance. One could conclude from the results of our Democratic presidential primary that voters will turn out for principled Democrats who stand unambiguously in defense of the public good, and not for the further enrichment of real estate plutocrats.

Tom Elliott, a resident of Durham and a native of Newport, is a leading opponent to the expansion and privatization of Mount Sunapee State Park.

Categories: Opinion