CONCORD, N.H. >> A yearslong effort to expand a ski mountain will finally get an up-or-down vote this week and, with it, force two gubernatorial candidates to pick a side in an emotional and unique New Hampshire issue.
"It's been a long process," said Jay Gamble, general manager at Mount Sunapee Resort, noting the current expansion efforts for more lifts and trails began in 2004.
The five-member Executive Council is set to vote Wednesday on whether to approve the expansion, after taking months of public input and testimony. The ski mountain leases part of its land from the state, and the Department of Resources and Economic Development supports the expansion plan, saying it appropriately balances economic development with public concerns over conservation.
The plan includes protections for an area of the mountain including the Old Growth Forest and attempts to block residential development. But opponents of the project worry an expansion will encroach on and fail to protect the state park's natural resources.
The vote puts the council, which tends to stay out of the spotlight, squarely in the center of a battle between economic development and conservation. With two of the five councilors — Democrat Colin Van Ostern and Republican Chris Sununu — running for governor, the stakes in the vote are heightened. Neither has made their positions clear.
Van Ostern said Friday he's not yet decided how he'll vote and he planned to spend his time reviewing the public feedback.
"The stewardship of lands that are owned by the people of New Hampshire and decisions that will last for decades deserve a very high level of scrutiny," he said.
Sununu, meanwhile, is facing calls to recuse himself from the vote because he runs another New Hampshire ski resort, Waterville Valley. He has recused himself on past votes regarding the Cannon Mountain Ski Area, which is owned by the state. Environmental organization The Sierra Club, a leading voice in the opposition, spoke with Sununu on Friday and urged him to remove himself from the vote.
"We feel that either way the councilor votes, it is hard not to see a bias," said Catherine Corkery, director of the New Hampshire Sierra Club. "Either he's helping or gaining support from his ski resort buddies, or he's trying to beat out the competition with his elected position."
Sununu did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The plan needs support from a majority of voting councilors to pass, meaning it won't be approved if Sununu doesn't vote and the council deadlocks 2-2.
Votes by the council, which has approval power over gubernatorial appointments and large state contracts, are rarely high profile. The body was most recently in the spotlight last summer over a vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
Among Sununu's GOP primary opponents, neither state Sen. Jeanie Forrester nor Rep. Frank Edelblut took a position on the plan, but Edelblut said Sununu should not vote. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas did not respond to a request for comment.
On the Democratic side, former securities regulator Mark Connolly said the plan seems "viable" and also suggested Sununu should recuse himself. Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand said he has concerns about the potential for further expansion beyond the plan's intentions. He also said since Sununu has recused himself before on ski industry-related matters, "this would fall squarely in the same category" and it probably would be wise for him to do so.
Messages also were left Monday with councilors Chris Pappas, a Democrat, and David Wheeler, a Republican, asking for their positions on the plan.
Republican Councilor Joe Kenney said he's "leaning toward" supporting the plan.