By Chris Jensen
LANCASTER – The Coos Planning Board doesn’t have a formal proposal for a hotel high on the flank of Mount Washington. But it’s already exploring whether a hotel can be located in such a “protected district.”
During a regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday the board went into a private session with lawyer Christine Fillmore to discuss how much latitude it has when it comes to zoning regulations.
The issue is a controversial proposal by Wayne Presby and Joel Bedor to build a 35-room hotel in a protected area at a height of about 5,000 feet. The Presby and Bedor families own The Cog Railway and say the hotel would be on land they own and would be privately financed.
“The board has been asking for guidance and how you would interpret some of those uses in a protected zone,” said planning board chairman John Scarinza.
That’s a reference to part of the Coos County zoning regulations designed “to protect certain critical areas from inappropriate land use activities which may degrade their environmental quality.”
That includes “steep slopes and high elevations.” Those are defined as terrain above 2,700 feet and slopes exceeding 60 degrees.
Presby raised the possibility of a hotel at a planning board meeting in December. And planning board vice chairman Fred King contended that one section of the regulation gives the board the latitude to approve such a project.
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.”
Scarinza declined to share the legal advice, but said the lawyer has “given us guidance on things that the board should consider if and when it receives an application. Once an application comes in the board will have to make its best judgement going forward.”
Presby declined to provide an update on the project.
Six conservation groups are opposing the project citing the “rare and fragile nature” of that alpine environment. The groups also say the hotel would harm the “extraordinary scenic and cultural value.”
The groups are the Appalachian Trail Conservancy; the Conservation Law Foundation; New Hampshire Audubon; The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests; The Nature Conservancy and The Appalachian Mountain Club.
Presby and supporters of the project say there is a history of hotels on Mount Washington, the area along The Cog Railway is hardly pristine, the hotel would provide a safe haven for hikers in case of bad weather and would provide an economic boost.
The Appalachian Mountain Club is familiar with such controversies. It has been on the other side.
It operates eight huts offering meals and lodging in The White Mountains and in 2015 it proposed building a new one in the Crawford Notch. The proposal was strongly opposed by outdoor enthusiasts as a commercialization of the area.
New Hampshire Fish and Game also opposed it, noting it would be located in high-elevation habitat. The agency quoted an AMC document that describes such habitats as “a very limited, yet critical component of the Northeastern landscape.”
The AMC eventually withdrew the proposal.