By Chris Jensen
LANCASTER: A section of the Coos County zoning ordinance designed to preserve and protect high-elevation areas such as Mount Washington contains a section that one planning board member is arguing could allow a 35-room hotel along the Cog Railway.
The “protected district” section is designed “to protect certain critical areas from inappropriate land use activities which may degrade their environmental quality.”
Those include “steep slopes and high elevations.” Those are defined as terrain above 2,700 feet and slopes exceeding 60 degrees.
The ordinance says those areas should be protected “to preserve the natural equilibrium of vegetation, geology, slope, soil and climate in order to reduce danger to public health and safety posed by unstable mountain areas, to protect water quality and to preserve mountain areas for their scenic values and recreational opportunities.”
But at a meeting of the Coos Planning Board Thursday night, board member Fred King argued that one sub-section of the ordinance provides the board with the latitude to approve a project such as the hotel.
It reads: “Other structures, uses or services which the Board determines are consistent with the purposes of this sub-district and of the Master Plan and are not detrimental to the resources or uses which they protect.”
Board chairman John Scarinza said, “that is the important paragraph of that whole section” and the board needs to figure out “what is the proper interpretation of that.”
If the board receives a formal application for the hotel, Scarinza said the board would need an opinion from its lawyer to help it reach a consensus.
The project is before the Coos Planning Board because the hotel would be in an unincorporated area that lacks a board.
One of those opposing the project, David Govatski of Jefferson, says the rest of that section on protected districts makes it clear a hotel should not be allowed.
“The amount of environmental degradation would be significant,” Govatski said in an email. “The proposal is precedent setting and would encourage others to apply to build in the alpine zone.”
At the meeting, developer Wayne Presby, one of the owners of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, said the building would be carefully designed to blend with the environment, the land along the railway is already disturbed and there is a tradition of such hotels on the mountain.
He said the hotel would be built along the railway’s 99-foot wide strip of land, which is owned by the Presby and Bedor families and there would be no need for public funds.
Board member Mike Waddell asked for more detailed information.
“It would help me a great deal to see something that was a little more advanced in the way of what your thoughts were,” he said.
“It is completely open ended and I suppose for someone who is opposed to it, they are going to imagine the worst and for someone who might support it they are going to imagine the least impact,” Waddell said.
Presby responded that the project isn’t far enough along to have anything on paper and he wanted to meet with the planning board to see what issues it would consider.
“We were here just as a pre-application meeting and hoping to get some feedback as to whether they would even consider such a thing before we begin spending a bunch of money getting conceptual plans together,” Presby said.
The board said those issues would include locating above 2,700 feet, the narrowness of the buildable land, fire safety, the need for a zoning change and the impact on sensitive terrain.
Almost three dozen people attended the meeting, but public comments weren’t allowed because there was no formal application being considered. Scarinza said if an application is received, there would be several opportunities for comments, including a public hearing.
About 6,500 people have signed two Change.org petitions against the project, citing concerns including environmental damage and the reduction of a wilderness experience on a mountain that already has too many commercial activities.
Almost 600 people have signed a petition on the website of the Mount Washington Cog Railway in favor of the project, citing the economic boost and the mountain’s history of having hotels.