New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Sarah Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources (DNCR), state Senator Dan Feltes, local residents and members of the Friends of Mount Sunapee attended an information session at the state park Wednesday evening. Residents voiced their concerns about the takeover of the lease at the park by a resort company and heard the resort representatives speak about their company's intentions.
VR NE Holdings, LLC, a subsidiary of Vail Resorts, Inc. is in the process of buying the lease. Vail Resorts, which bills itself as the premier mountain resort company in the world, currently owns 11 similar “iconic locations” and has announced its intention to acquire the operating rights to three New England ski areas for $82 million: Sunapee, Okemo in Vermont and Crested Butte in Colorado. It acquired Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont in February 2017.
The company intends to invest $35 million in the three ski resorts, and assured audience members it is not in the real estate development business. Its target market is families of incomes averaging $170,000, and its aim is to add value to their resort experience.
The park is owned by the state, leased by Och-Ziff Capital Management Group, and managed by the Mueller family. The transfer of state property to a private company triggers state oversight procedures. If the deal goes through, closing is anticipated by Labor Day or possibly October 1.
A public comment period on the lease transfer will remain open until August 8.
“The main thing I got from the meeting is that attorney general MacDonald and commissioner Sarah Stewart are committed to doing their due diligence,” said Steve Russell, president of the Friends of Mount Sunapee (FOMS).
“The attorney general's office is monitoring all this, and then it will go to the state. The DNCR commissioner will make a final decision,” said Russell. “It's complicated.”
The history of the park goes back to 1911, when a group led by summer residents of Mount Sunapee raised $8,000 to buy 650 acres on the mountain to protect it from logging. At that time, observers found trees older than 150 years, and no cut stumps in the hardwood stands, indicating these forests had not been logged. The forests were then termed “primeval.” Additional land was added to the park by subsequent purchases, until the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire forests had amassed l,185 acres in 1934. Eventually the state bought the Lake Sunapee beach area as well.
Although some environmentalists apply the term “old-growth” to the western slopes of the mountain, that term is ill-defined. According to a report submitted to the Division of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) in 1999, old-growth or old forests are better defined by shared characteristics, as each of the few areas left is different. The 400 or so acres of ancient forest on Mount Sunapee show no trace of logging and include trees over 250 years old, the report says. The FOMS prefer to term the area an “exemplary natural community system,” taking into account that an untouched area of forest has a lot more to it than old trees.
Further, the area is a corridor for keystone species of wildlife and part of the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, a human corridor of scenic hiking trails.
The Friends of Mount Sunapee presented six organizational positions at the meeting, requiring that any changes to the lease be found in compliance with state law; that the lessees of the mountain undergo an independent audit; that any changes to the resort that affect state assets undergo government review; that Exemplary Natural Community Systems areas be designated and protected on the public lands, and that the park's natural features be preserved and protected for the benefit of the public.
In the past, the lease holder installed a 3-D archery course without seeking public permission.
“A big part of our organizational position is there needs to be public accountability,” said Russell.
A prior lease transfer to Och-Ziff Capital Management Group circumvented the state oversight requirement. In an unrelated case, in 2016, the hedge fund company settled criminal charges of bribery and conspiracy, paying $413 million as part of an agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Attorney general MacDonald has promised that the lease holder will be subject to auditing, which has not been done before. Auditing will reach back three years and be ongoing as the lease continues.
“The state will ultimately make the decision, but they're not the ones choosing the buyer,” said Russell.
To submit an opinion on the lease transfer, write to:
Department of Natural and Cultural Resources
c/o Mount Sunapee Comments
172 Pembroke Rd, Concord, NH 03301
-- GLYNIS HART