Planning Board continues Balsams ski area site plan review
By Edith Tucker
The Berlin Daily Sun
LANCASTER — After meeting without a break for three-plus hours Tuesday night on the application for a site plan review submitted by Dixville Capital LLC for the redevelopment and expansion of the ski area at The Balsams Resort in Dixville, the Coös County Planning Board for the Unincorporated Places voted unanimously to continue the meeting until 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 18, tentatively at Lancaster Town Hall.
Planning Director Tara Bamford of North Country Council distributed her written comments after the meeting began. “As an overall comment, it is unclear which specific elements for which the applicant is requesting site plan approval at this time. The (written) narrative in various places mentions, in addition to the ski terrain and (approximate) lift locations, snowmaking water delivery and distribution systems, utilities, the ski-back bridge, four accesses, a gondola, and use of the Wilderness Base Lodge,” she writes.” However, no site plan-like details are provided for any specific feature.” Bamford suggests at least two options the Board could consider “that would enable the project to move forward while protecting the public interests.”
Burt Mills, who heads up the Dixville Capital development team on behalf of developer Les Otten, kicked off the meeting by presenting maps of the proposed 1,200 acres of open ski terrain on the south side of Route 26 that would incorporate the now-shuttered Wilderness Ski Area, plus Bayroot lands now under option that are managed by Wagner Forest Management of Lyme. An additional 800 acres may be developed as glade skiing, which would bring the ultimate total to 2,000 acres of alpine skiing.
“We hope to break ground in late summer,” Mills said.
He highlighted the first five lifts that Dixville Capital plans to install at approximately designated locations, plus the restoration of an existing triple-chair lift.
The aerial lift — 3A — would carry passengers from the resort hotel complex on the north side of Route 26 to a location where a mid-mountain ski lodge is planned. Its dimensions have not yet been determined, and the developers said they plan to file a separate site plan review application once details are worked out.
Mills asked that the new lifts be approved based on “typical profiles” rather than specific drawings developed by any of the three potential lift vendors, all of which would be subject to the oversight of Tramway and Amusement Ride Safety of the state Department of Safety, from planning, through construction, and once operational. Mills pointed out that both the ski industry itself and commercial insurance carriers also closely monitor ski lift safety. Vendors typically ask for a 10 percent down payment on each lift before beginning their detailed engineering work.
The application also includes a schematic drawing of the much-touted 1,000-foot-long “ski-back” bridge over Lake Gloriette, Route 26 and the Mohawk River. A preliminary cost estimate came in higher than anticipated, however, and Mills said that it could be “nixed” in the short term and left for a later construction phase. If built, the bridge would be 60 feet over the Mohawk River, and clear Route 26 by 24 feet. Plans would have to be approved by the state Department of Transportation (NHDOT).
Water for all the expanded ski area’s snowmaking equipment would come from the Androscoggin River in Errol under a plan already permitted. The existing Wilderness Pond and pump would not be used. Needed easements from landowners abutting Route 26 have recently been acquired to accommodate the water pipe, Mills added. Both an ancillary pump house and an air compressor building would need site plan review.
As Bamford noted, project details that usually would have been included in the application were not available.
“This falls short of what would be considered the norm,” said planning board member Mike Waddell of Gorham. The board had unanimously approved the Development Agreement at its last meeting on Jan. 18, 2015, he said. “That’s what you needed to get financing,” Waddell reminded.
At that time public relations spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne reported that the financing package would be finalized in 90 days or mid-April. No public announcement of securing the needed $143 million has been made, however, other than a promise that at least a $2 million investment by Forward NH that is associated with the controversial proposed Northern Pass Transmission project.
“We’re not trying to escape the rules but rather to find a way, a back door; the process is daunting,” Mill said, adding that without planning board approval the project could be delayed until 2017.
“Are we doing this review too soon?" asked Planning Board Chairman John Scarinza. If the developer had the state Alteration of Terrain permit (AoT) permit were completed and submitted to the state Department of Environmental Services (NHDES), the board would know if many of its own requirements were being met. Completing the NHDES application will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the developer said.
Mills pointed out that Dixville Capital would soon seek approval from the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct real estate sales and had hoped having planning board approval of the expanded ski resort in hand would bolster the promises made about planned amenities to prospective buyers.
Two Board members — Waddell and attorney Tom McCue of Berlin — pointed out that the board is bound by its own regulations and must review all the information before giving its approval. Not to follow the legal requirements by cutting corners would put the whole project at risk by opening the way for a challenge to be successful in Superior Court.
“In project with which I’ve been involved, permits were in hand before construction began,” Waddell pointed out.
Nearly all other board members and alternates participated in the lively discussion: Coös 7 Rep. Leon Rideout and Mark Frank, both of Lancaster; Ed Mellett of Northumberland; and vice chairman Fred King, clerk Jennifer Fish and Tom Tillotson, all of Colebrook. Wagner forester Scott Rineer of Errol recused himself.
The board agreed to meet every three weeks. Mills said that getting site plan review approval for the Hampshire and Dix House just-submitted applications is the developer’s top priority.
The planning board must hold a public hearing before approving a site plan review.