LURC Approves New Development of Saddleback Mountain Ski Resort

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News ( 4/2/04

A new chapter in Saddleback Mountain tortuous development history is about to be written.

A new chapter in Saddleback Mountain tortuous development history is about to be written. Since the bitterly fought Appalachian Trail (A.T.) issue was resolved two years ago, the proposed rebirth of the ski resort could be relatively free of controversy.

The Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) unanimously approved a permit on March 31 to allow the new Saddleback owners, Archie W. "Bill" Berry Jr. of Farmington and his family, to proceed with the first phase of a multimillion project. The permit allows the cutting of trees on the mountain for six new ski trails and gives Saddleback an 18-month extension to present all phases of the final development plan to the board by October, 2005.

The National Park Service (NPS) and major environmental organizations which opposed Saddleback’s development efforts in the past reviewed the Berrys’ plan. They registered no objections to the initial phase. Pam Underhill, director of NPS’ A. T. office in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, wrote LURC that the agency was "comfortable signing off" on the first phase because it would focus activities on the lower slopes of 4,116-foot Saddleback.

The next two phases of the project will include a $4 million base lodge, a hotel, two new ski lifts, a new septic system, expanded snowmaking capacity and other infrastructure development. Underhill said it’s her understanding that the Berrys are not going to try to develop sensitive areas higher on the mountain that were the environmental battlegrounds during the Breen years.

At the commission’s regular monthly meeting, LURC director Catherine Carroll requested and received permission from the seven-member policymaking board to allow the staff to process the phase two application for the 16,000-square-foot base lodge, which will replace the older, much smaller existing one. "Our feeling is that the lodge reconstruction is minor, compared to what you’re seeing in phase three," she said. The building replacement is "not a material change," Carroll said.

Senior planner Marcia Spencer-Famous had the chore of explaining Saddleback’s contentious LURC history to the newly revamped commission so they would understand what they were being asked to approve. The 15-year background "is not for the administrative faint of heart," she quipped, at the outset of her hour presentation.

Commissioner Ed Laverty summarized the board’s role as deciding the big "box" concept for Saddleback. "[This is] so everyone agrees we have dealt with the major issues, and the applicant has some security [to go forward], and we have some security" that the natural resources will be protected, he said. The LURC staff then deals with the projects within the box," he said, " with any material change brought back to us."

LURC chairman Bart Harvey questioned how the public could get involved, noting that the base lodge proposal would be much larger than the present 9,000-square foot facility. "If there is any controversy, we will bring it to this commission," Carroll promised. "I’m assuming this is an uneventful proposal."

Marcia Spencer-Famous assured the commission that she had spoken to all the intervenors and interested parties in Saddleback’s development proposal under former owner Donald Breen and would make sure that all documents are sent to them.

About 23 acres of trees are slated to be cut for the six new ski trails.
Photo: Saddleback Ski Area website

The Berry’s project, if it is built out, will be the first Planned Development Subdistrict (D-PD) in LURC’s 10.5-million acre jurisdiction, or half the state. Carroll reminded the commission that the Kenetech windpower and the Kineo hotel resort/subdivision proposals were submitted under the D-PD subdistrict zoning years ago, but those plans were withdrawn. Consequently, the D-PD process hasn’t been put to a full test, and the LURC staff is inexperienced with that permitting process, Carroll acknowledged.

The D-PD subdistrict takes that category of project out of the usual LURC application and regulation procedures. It means such projects do not have to be adjacent to existing development and do not have to be balanced with land conservation in the public interest. The subdistrict zoning is designed to be applied on a case-by-case basis for large development projects that must be located in certain areas because they depend on the natural resources of particular sites. For example, mining operations must be sited specifically for where the minerals are located, and windpower projects need windy landscapes, such as mountain summits.

Establishing such a subdistrict and authorizing the development plan is done in a two-part process. First, the developer petitions the commission to establish the subdistrict; then a detailed preliminary development plan is proposed; and a public hearing is held. Secondly, the developer presents a final development plan containing additional detail and construction schedules, which is then reviewed and voted on by the commission. Time limits for submittal, review and approval of the various stages of the process are set. The final plan must be approved within 18 months after the preliminary plan is accepted, and the project must be substantially within 24 months. If those deadlines are not met, the applicant must start over.

In brief, Saddleback ski area was started prior to LURC’s creation in 1971 and expanded after that by owners of that era. In 1984, Massachusetts businessman Breen purchased the resort and requested to use the P-DP process for development of an "Aspen of the East" resort. LURC approved the zoning petition in 1989, and a 1,960-acre D-PD subdistrict was established for condominium and apartment developments, ski trail expansions with associated ski lifts and snowmaking facilities.

But following Breen’s pronouncements of a mega-resort, he and NPS, the Appalachian Trail Conference and other trail and environmental organizations became locked in battle over protection of the A. T. that runs across Saddleback’s 3.5 mile-summit. In 1995, Breen put all development initiatives on hold pending resolution of the A. T. issues. Maine’s senior U. S. Sen. Olympia Snowe became very involved in trying to help negotiate a settlement. Breen put 8,373 acres of his Saddleback property, including the ski resort and the land around Saddleback Lake, on the market for $16 million in 1997. Later, he dropped the price to $12 million when Sotheby’s International Realty tried to sell it.

In November, 2000, Breen reached a settlement with NPS to protect the A. T. corridor. The $4 million deal set aside about 1,448 acres through a mix of outright purchase, easement and donation. The purchase and donation involved 1,126 acres that Breen had wanted to develop, requiring a crossing of the A. T. by skiers, snowmaking pipelines, utility lines and a road.

Since the bitterly fought Appalachian Trail (A.T.) issue was resolved two years ago, the proposed rebirth of the ski resort could be relatively free of controversy.
Photo: Andrew Skurka

The agreement was a political compromise. On the positive side, it protected 90 percent of the immediate viewshed around Saddleback mountain, kept the ski area from using the nearby pristine Eddy Pond as a source for snowmaking in the future and preserved the alpine tundra and about 95 percent of the associated krummhotz communities – the stunted trees that grow at high altitude.

The A. T. community questioned the value of the "donated" land because of how narrow the buffer would be between the trail and potential ski development to the west. The agreement did not stop future development in some areas visible from the footpath where it is very narrow (on the northwest side of the mountain above the "bowl" of The Horn and high on Saddleback peak).

Bill Berry, formerly a geology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), and his family purchased the ski resort and 8,087 acres for $7.5 million in September, 2003, under the name Saddleback land and Timber Corp. The land included the 1,960 D-PD subdistrict. Breen kept 3,663 acres. All LURC approvals under the preliminary D-PD plan of Breen’s were transferred to Berry at the time of sale.

The Berry family had been longtime skiers at Saddleback and mountain condominium owners by the time they purchased the property. Bill Berry taught skiing for years at the Titcomb ski area in Farmington, where his son, Mark, ran the operation. Bill Berry and his wife, Irene, are known for their philanthropy, notably a $1.3 million donation to UMF’s geology department, from which he retired in 1996. Bill, Irene and Mark Berry attended the LURC session to hear the commission discuss the project, and another family member also was present.

In January, 2004, the Berrys submitted the first phase of a revised proposal for the final development plan. About 23 acres of trees are slated to be cut for the six new ski trails. Four of the six trails are entirely below 2,700 feet, and the other two trails extend 70 feet and 363 feet above that elevation, respectively. The average width of the trails to be created will range from 40 to 60 feet, and the project will take six weeks to complete. Five of the six trails would have an overall slope of less than 10 percent.

LURC gave the Berrys permission to go ahead with the harvesting as long as the ground is frozen; and on April 1, the Saddleback website showed photos of the first day of tree cutting. Clearing of the understory and shrubbery, as well as groundwork, in the new trails will occur later in phase three of the project.

Bill Berry, formerly a geology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF), and his family purchased the ski resort and 8,087 acres for $7.5 million in September, 2003.
Photo: Saddleback Ski Area website

The Berrys will return to LURC for a slate of other final permit approvals. Commissioner Laverty expressed concern over phased development because of the potential cumulative environmental impacts. "This [D-PD] seems to be specifically set up to allow this," he observed, asking what happens five years down the road when effects are apparent that were not anticipated. Marcia Spencer-Famous assured Laverty that the permit could be amended to deal with any problems. Steve Wight said, "We just have to trust the process."

At the end of the discussion, there were questions of whether the Berrys could immediately tear down the old base lodge upon receiving the permit and what would happen if someone appealed the commission’s approval. LURC’s regional supervisor of the permitting and compliance division, Bill Gailbraith, advised that a permit is effective upon approval, but there is a 30-day appeal period. Some applicants take the risk and go ahead with construction, he said. In some cases, buildings have had to be torn down because an appeal was successful.

The commission recently found themselves in a difficult situation when Plum Creek Land Company asked to amend their conservation covenant at First Roach Pond in order to bury a utility line within the protected area. (See Phyllis Austin report) The staff approved the change, and Plum Creek went ahead with the work before an appeal from the Natural Resources Council of Maine was considered by the commission. "We all agreed this just should not have happened," Laverty said. Gailbraith suggested that the commission could limit the construction start date on permits.

Catherine Carroll said she was "almost certain I cautioned Plum Creek" about working on the utility line project before the appeal period ended. Bart Harvey commented, "We’re depending on your good judgment."

In other business, Carroll notified the commission of an application in the works from Nestle Waters North America Inc. (Poland Spring Water) to drill two wells in Pierce Pond Township. Carroll said the $1.4 million application could be handled at the staff level. Although the commission didn’t receive a lot of such proposals, she said, the staff is familiar with them because Cherryfield Foods has five active water withdrawal wells in Washington County for their blueberry irrigation, and another four are being proposed.

The commissioners didn’t object to the staff processing the application, but Ed Laverty asked for the members to be briefed from time to time. "We may be seeing more and more of these," he said, pointing out that the project appears to be a significant investment. "What issues are associated with allowing subsurface waters to be given to private use?" he asked.

LURC was also notified of an application in the works from Nestle Waters North America Inc. (Poland Spring Water) to drill two wells in Pierce Pond Township

Steve Wight said that question has come up with Cherryfield Foods. "We need assurances [the water drawdown subject] is looked at. There may come a time," he said, "when the rest of New England is looked to for its water resource, and we’re doing to have to deal with [water politics]." Carroll explained that Poland Spring can’t drill as deeply into the ground as Cherryfield Foods because of drinking water standards. The Maine Geological Survey is involved with LURC in evaluating the permit request.

At the outset of the meeting, Bart Harvey made reference to it being a "watershed day" because of the commission welcoming four new members. It is the largest turnover in LURC history, and the terms of two of the other three commissioners expire this summer. The situation gives Gov. John Baldacci the opportunity to replace Steve Wight and Bart Harvey or reappoint them, leaving Ed Laverty as the only holdover from the Angus King administration.

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