State OKs Mount Sunapee Plan With Conditions To Work on Lagoons

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Paula Tracy photo

The view from Mount Sunapee is pictured in this file photo.


NEWBURY – Vail Resorts has been given conditional approval for its annual operating plan for Mount Sunapee after questions surfaced about the need and environmental impact of building a fourth parking lot on the state park property.

Questions about the need to spend $900,000 to clear trees and create a new lot also led to a discussion about an aging and adjacent set of lagoons holding septic effluent from the ski area and spray field where the water is discharged during the summer months and whether or not the unlined lagoons could somehow seep water into Beck Brook, and then to Lake Sunapee, impacting that pristine water source.

The conditional plan holds them to the fire on fixing that and coming up with a plan to implement recommendations by the firm Hoyle & Tanner from July 2023.

In her June 29 letter to Vail, doing business as Mount Sunapee Resort or (MSR), permission for the project was granted with qualifications by Sarah Stewart, commissioner of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

By law, she had to produce a decision for approval or denial by June 30.

It has a provision that requires the company to develop a plan to upgrade the lagoons as outlined by the Department of Environmental Services by February 2025. 

This is the third operating plan approved for Vail after it assumed a lease held for more than 20 years by Okemo Mountain Resort owners Diane and Tim Mueller who retired.

The state set up the park for lease in 1998 with the plan of having proceeds from the lease help with the operations of its sister resort, state-owned and operated Cannon Mountain ski area in Franconia.

As of December 2023, Stewart said, the state has received $5,081,254 in cumulative base fee payments and $8,824,704 in cumulative commission payments in accordance with the 1998 Lease.

The 2023 base fee payment, which has been adjusted adding the consumer price index of 8.52 percent was $278,169. On top of that the state receives a three percent commission payment annually and for Fiscal Year 2023 it was $617,377.

Peter Disch, Mount Sunapee Resort general manager, said the public-private partnership and oversight from the public and other organizations contribute to the success of the ski area.

“Our collaboration with the State of New Hampshire, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, the Mount Sunapee Advisory Commission, the New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the Town of Newbury, along with other community partners and organizations has contributed to the success of Mount Sunapee as a premier year-round recreational venue for our guests. These collaborations are key to what we do, and we’re so grateful for their expertise and ongoing support,” he said Wednesday.

Stewart and the state DNCR said the company is making progress on waste issues.

“The DNCR commends MSR’s efforts to reduce its solid waste by expanding its waste sorting to two new locations and achieving an additional 20 percent reduction of waste to landfill year-over-year,” Stewart wrote.

She said the agency also acknowledges MSR’s “responsive and collaborative action with local and state agencies to address the vehicle traffic challenges that occurred during the 2021-2022 winter season.”

During that season, traffic was backed up for several miles and vehicles were parked on the main road entering the facility.

The company says its five-year master plan that on average there are four days a winter when traffic exceeds capacity, usually on holidays and weekends.

During the design and permitting process for Parking Lot 4, which will hold fewer than 300 vehicles, MSR further refined its design and proposed the expansion of parking in lot 2 closest to the resort.

The company was granted a Major Wetlands Impact Permit on May 10, 2024, and the Alteration of Terrain permit is in the review process with the Department of Environmental Services.

“DNCR is refining its conditional approval of the Parking Lot #4 project, based upon the project’s redesign and the proposal to expand Parking Lot #2,” Stewart wrote.

She noted that the state recognizes a mowing schedule to protect three rare plant species: the greater fringed-gentian population, the Loesel’s wide-lipped orchid population, and the northern tubercled bog-orchid population.

“The DNCR appreciates MSR’s commitment to protect the Lake Sunapee watershed through 

collaboration and partnerships with state agencies and community organizations,” including working on a sub-watershed management plan for Beck Brook and collaborating with the Lake Sunapee Protective Association in the overall management of the Lake Sunapee Watershed. 

Stewart said in 2022 the resort operators and LSPA agreed to plan for additional work over the next three to five years on culverts and headers located downstream from Spruce Lodge.

The company received a Groundwater Discharge Permit from DES for its wastewater lagoon and sprayfield system on Feb 1, 2024. A link to DES information on the lagoons are here:

The permit contained several conditions that MSR is obligated to fulfill, including one that states that within one year of the date of this permit, the permittee shall provide the [DES] the following, related to the operations and maintenance the wastewater facility:

– An Operations and Maintenance Plan for the lagoon and spray facility

– A plan to replace and/or upgrade infrastructure and a timeline including the lagoon cast-in place concrete flow control structures, elevated bridge deck, and spray irrigation pump building.

– An assessment of the approximate sludge volume there and a plan if needed to remove the sludge. 

As part of the permission to operate, Stewart wrote “MSR will provide copies of the aforementioned plans, timelines, and assessments to DNCR for departmental review. DNCR will facilitate information sharing of the plans, timelines and assessments, including, but not limited to, calling a meeting of the Mount Sunapee Advisory Council.”

It also requires details of the Groundwater Discharge Program in future Annual Operating Plans that shall include the details of and updates on these permit obligations and reporting.

The lease states that the “Operator shall maintain the leased premises in first class condition… shall undertake all maintenance of the facilities, lifts, trails, slopes, ponds, water courses, buildings, structures, roadways and other appurtenances, and housekeeping in all areas of the Leased Premises.”

In a letter to, Stewart noted the construction of parking lot 4 was proposed in the 2000-2004 master development plan approved by Commissioner George Bald on September 19, 2000. 

She said the company also brought that plan forward in its operating plan for 2022-2023, which DNCR conditionally approved on June 30, 2022. No action was taken on it, then, but it was included for construction in this year’s plan. 

The plan also changes the use the State Beach parking lot in winter for staff parking only and not for overflow parking, the letter said, and “will continue its commitment to maintain water quality during any approved construction.”

State Rep. Dan Wolf, R-Newbury, who is also a long-time member of the Mount Sunapee Advisory Committee, attended the public hearing on the project in June in which a number of members of the public spoke in opposition.

Wolf said before the decision he was not taking a position but wanted the state to address how parking lots needs correlate with the mountain’s overall comfortable carrying capacity for skiers in terms of lifts and trails, and what is the practical need for the proposal, in addition to exploring the condition of the lagoons and potential encroachment issues if a new parking lot is constructed.

He said Wednesday that Stewart was under a tight time frame to respond but the decision answered most of the questions posed.

He said he was particularly pleased that the conditional approval requires implementation of the Hoyle & Tanner report to replace the lagoons.

“I think they are going to have to do it,” he said of MSR replacing the lagoons. 

Andrew Koff, state DES hydrogeologist, said there are no signs that lagoons are leaking but the state has testing underway in nearby Beck Brook which flows into Lake Sunapee and the ski area needs to obtain an alteration of terrain permit, but has received other permitting.

“They have extensive monitoring around the facility,” he said, and they meet all applicable standards for the lagoons and spray field. He said the department had concerns about the separating distance of the proposed parking lot to the spray fields of 100 feet but said he believes that is something they will be able to achieve.

The Friends of Mount Sunapee has opposed commercial operations and advocates for the land to be used as a park since the inception of the lease agreement more than 25 years ago.

In a newsletter sent out by the organization, the FOSM said the proposed project does not meet the criteria set forth in the 1998 lease agreement. The project calls for the removal of five and a half acres of forest and the elimination of seven thousand square feet of wetlands. This includes most of the forested area on both sides of the upper part of the main access road. Where trees once stood, park visitors will be greeted by a sea of gravel and blacktop. This will permanently degrade the quality of  the Sunapee State Park visitor experience.

“Additionally, site reviews by the Newbury Conservation Commission, revealed the proposed parking lot abuts an antiquated sewage treatment facility installed in the late 1960’s. It has long ago passed its 20-year service life.”

Officials for FOMS were not immediately available for comment on the approval.

Vail Resorts owns 42 ski areas including New Hampshire’s Attitash Resort and Wildcat ski area and has a long-term lease with the state.

Paula Tracy has been a reporter in New Hampshire since 1982. Last year the New Hampshire Press Association honored her with a lifetime achievement award and this year she took first place in our division for her Investigative Reporting.

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