2022-04-15-SUGARMOUNTAIN

Keane Aures stands near a marker in the parking lot of Maple Valley where a 100-foot buffer to the West River would extend. Such a buffer, he said, would mean no overflow parking for Sugar Mountain, his planned distillery and brewery.

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DUMMERSTON — Attorneys for Sugar Mountain, a project to turn the vacant Maple Valley Ski Area lodge into a brewery and event center, contend the Agency of Natural Resource’s position that a lot along the West River should not be used for parking could undermine decades of Act 250 case law.

“ANR is asking the commission to embark into wholly uncharted territory,” wrote Chris Roy in a filing to the District 2 Environmental Commission, which will decide if and how the project should go forward. “The commission should decline ANR’s invitation to disrupt and undermine decades-old concepts of Act 250 jurisdiction — all to prevent the ... noncontroversial use of a pre-existing, long-used gravel parking area while enhancing the condition of the West River’s western bank.”

Roy’s filing was in response to an earlier filing by the Agency of Natural Resources, which concluded the commission should not allow the developer to use a parking lot between Route 30 and the West River.

“It is very unclear why 213 parking spaces are necessary for 150 guests,” states the agency’s filing. “There are several other flat areas on the parcel across the street, and the applicant has not explained why these areas cannot be used for additional parking.”

Four years ago, on behalf of Sugar Mountain, Keane Aures, senior counsel in the Hartford, Conn., office of Gordon & Rees, purchased the dormant ski area.

Two-and-a-half years ago, after receiving a permit from the Dummerston Development Review Board, Aures submitted his plan to the state to renovate the old ski lodge and put a brewery at one end and a distillery at the other, with a tasting room in the middle. The plans call for redoing the facade, installing big windows and building a new entrance at the north end of the building.

In 1989, the ski area was sold at auction for $1.2 million, and in 1997, Frank Mercede and Sons bought the property, again during an auction, operating it on weekends and holidays in the 1999-2000 season. It has sat idle since then, though the Mercedes presented plans to develop the property as a four-season resort with homes. Those plans were shelved in the early 2010s.

Sugar Mountain proposed rehabilitating the old parking lot with a 50-foot river buffer with vegetation and grass seeded in what is now a gravel surface.

However, in its June 10 filing, the agency stated it has “consistently requested” 100-foot buffers along the West River and a robust buffer to protect the river’s ecosystem.

“Given the ecological importance and size of the West River and its associated floodplain, and the sensitive resources and their habitat needs, the West River should be afforded the standard minimum 100-foot undisturbed riparian zone measured from top of slope ...,” states the filing.

The agency agrees with Vermont Fish and Wildlife and the Connecticut River Conservancy that there doesn’t need to be parking on the West River, because the developer has 380 acres to work with on the west side of the road. The Vermont Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Windham Regional Commission have come down on the side of the developers, stating that the benefit to the community and the 50-foot buffer are sufficient to allow the plan to move forward.

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Aures told the Reformer in early May that a 100-foot buffer would basically mean no parking on that side of the river. He said he needs overflow parking for the 24 or so events each year that might require extra space. Eliminating overflow parking in the lot, he said, would mean people might have to park along the highway, like they do at the nearby swimming holes just upriver from the lodge.

He also said expecting him to excavate a ski slope for parking on the west side of the former lodge would not only be prohibitively expensive, it would cause its own damage to the environment.

Sugar Mountain has asserted the river management plan, with a 50-foot buffer, is an improvement over the existing parking lot, and without the commission’s approval, the renovation plans will be scrapped, and the parking lot will stay as it is now.

“The width, condition, quality and diversity of available habitats within the riparian buffer of the West River will be improved and enhanced as compared to the existing conditions,” Peter van Oot, an attorney for Sugar Mountain, said in May. “And the water quality of the West River will not be degraded or further impacted in any way by the project. We believe we’ve addressed every issue under Act 250.”

In addition to receiving a stamp of approval from the town, the project also has received permits for construction, stormwater, wastewater, potable water and highway access.

In Sugar Mountain’s initial application filed in February 2020, van Oot wrote that the project should be considered “minor” under Act 250, because the ski area existed prior to the act’s 1972 enactment and because there was an existing land-use permit issued in 1987 to change the pitch of the lodge’s roof.

Roy wrote in the filing that ageny’s filing is nothing more than an “11th-hour effort to create new law out of whole cloth.”

One of the bedrock principles underlying Act 250, wrote Roy, is that once Act 250 jurisdiction attaches to land, it does so into perpetuity, as do the terms and conditions of any Act 250 permits issued.

Roy wrote that the agency’s suggested course is “a radical departure” from case law that could call into question decades of precedent setting decisions.

Roy also noted that up and down its course, the West River has been affected by human activity, both from its proximity to Route 30 and the numerous access points that allow for swimming, fishing and boating.

“If one were to read ANR’s submission without any further understanding of the project site’s environmental context, he or she could easily assume that the West River is a pristine mountain stream with its banks along the project site in a natural, pre-Colombian state untouched by man,” wrote Roy. “That, of course, would be an extraordinarily inaccurate assumption.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.