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Ascutney Mountain Ski Trails Sold, Conserved



Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Brownsville — The Trust for Public Land on Tuesday announced that it has finalized the purchase of 470 acres of the former Ascutney Mountain Resort, a key milestone in West Windsor’s efforts to keep attracting outdoor enthusiasts to the former ski village.

The purchase eventually could lead to a recreational trail network that connects the West Windsor Town Forest on the western side of the mountain to the state park on the eastern side.

Town Administrator Martha Harrison said as soon as TPL completed the purchase from resort owner MFW Associates, it immediately transferred ownership to the town on Tuesday.

Also part of the overall purchase, though not related to the efforts by TPL, is Hotel Road and another 3.8-acre parcel with a maintenance garage that MFW Associates transferred directly to the town, Harrison said.

“It has been two years coming, so we are thrilled,” Harrison said Tuesday of the effort to buy the resort property and protect it from development with a permanent conservation easement.

For those who have watched the saga of the ski resort play out the last several years — from its bankruptcy and eventual closing in 2010 to the sale of the lifts, followed by negotiations to buy the property and raise more than $900,000 — Tuesday’s news signals a brighter future for the town.

“I’m very excited that this has finally happened,” said Michael Bell, director of Sports Trails of Ascutney Basin, an organization that built and manages about 30 miles of trail in the 1,100-acre town forest that abuts the ski area. “It is a great opportunity and a great investment for the town.”

The ski area will be added to the town forest, creating nearly 1,600 acres for recreation, including mountain biking, hiking, skiing and horseback riding.

Bell said he is confident the town’s strategy to use the ski area for an expanded trail network to attract more visitors to the area and boost the local economy will come to 
fruition.

“Our trail network is well-established and well-known. We get visitors from all over the Northeast and beyond, and this is going to increase and improve that,” he said.

In a news release announcing the purchase, TPL, a nonprofit that works with communities to preserve open space, said the conservation easement not only ensures permanent protection of the property, but also secures an extensive trail network with a diverse wildlife habitat.

“This acquisition means the four-season beauty and the use of the north face of Mount Ascutney will be preserved for this generation and for future generations,” West Windsor Selectboard member Tom Kenyon said in the release. “This is a tremendous gift to the citizens of this town and the larger region.”

The purchase comes about 14 months after voters overwhelmingly approved several articles at a special town meeting that authorized the town to proceed.

Former Selectboard member Glenn Seward was instrumental in working with the resort owners to negotiate a purchase and sales agreement. Seward said Tuesday he and the board realized a couple years ago that a privately owned ski operation simply was not coming back to the mountain. They also wanted to prevent the sale of the property to a developer.

“My personal feeling was that it was pretty clear what worked in the past was not going to work in the future,” said Seward, who was present at Town Hall on Tuesday when the sale was recorded. “How could we make this asset — a dormant ski area — work? The ski industry has changed, so we needed to take a different approach.”

The $915,000 raised by the TPL, which worked on the town’s behalf, included $105,000 from the town, $302,500 from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, $177,000 from the Open Space Institute Community Forest Fund and “significant grants” from several other organizations, TPL said in the news release.

Donations also were received from more than 115 individuals from around the country, thanks in part to articles in Backcountry Magazine and Outside’s online edition, according to Kate Wanner, a project manager with TPL.

The conservation easement will be co-held by the Upper Valley Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Wanner said raising money was only part of the challenge to complete the purchase, which had to be done by the end of the year under the terms of the agreement with MFW. She praised town officials for their assistance and commitment.

“I knew we would figure out a way to get it done,” Wanner said by phone from her Montpelier office. “Luckily, this Selectboard and Martha Harrison have been tremendous in helping solve problems.”

Wanner said there were title and survey issues, a road maintenance covenant and amendments to the property’s Act 250 permit to resolve.

“It was a complicated project with a lot to sort through,” she said. “I have never worked with such a committed selectboard. They were great.”

Town officials have said the network of multi-use recreational trails will help West Windsor remake itself as a recreation destination, something that will help the local economy and boost home values on the mountain, which declined sharply when the resort shut 
down.

In conjunction with Vermont state parks, Bell said, Sports Trails of Ascutney built a novice trail at the state park campground and also established some trails on the ski property.

“Our dream now is to start building a corridor to state park,” Bell said. “People could then bike from the campground to the town forest.”

In the news release, Bell said, the purchase will “allow the town to build on the already-established reputation of top-quality mountain biking, hiking and backcountry skiing.”

The sale does not include the hotel, which is owned by Orange Lake, a separate company.

Harrison also said the two acres containing the former ski lodge, which was gutted in a fire last January has been subdivided from the 470 acres and is not part of the sale. The disposition of that property, owned by the resort’s previous owner, Snowdance LLC, is in limbo.

“The town has discussed acquisition with them but everything is up in the air,” Harrison said.

The next step is to finalize the draft of the community forest management plan for the property, Harrison said.

Also being finalized is a memorandum of understanding between the town and Mt. Ascutney Outdoors, a local nonprofit organized specifically to manage and develop the trails. The memorandum will define the organization’s role in managing the land.

“I’m glad this Selectboard could bring this to a close,” Seward said. “I think it is terrific for the town to have the recreational activities there.”

A celebration of the purchase and official dedication of the mountain’s recently constructed free rope tow is planned for Feb. 6.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

Clarification

The Trust for Public Land and West Windsor this week acquired 470 acres of trails and other land at the former Ascutney ski area, but the purchase did not include a hotel and former base lodge at what was known as Ascutney Mountain Resort. An earlier headline with this story was unclear on that point.