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Suicide Six ski area drops plan for SUV trails

  • Snow recedes on Friday, April 2, 2021, at the Suicide Six ski area. An off-road driving school has been proposed for the ski hill in South Pomfret, Vt. ( Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A publicity photograph for the Bronco Off-Roadeo shows the new Ford vehicles in an unidentified location. Organizers have dropped plans to bring the event to Suicide Six in Pomfret, Vt. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 4/6/2021 3:17:12 PM
Modified: 4/6/2021 9:37:52 PM

SOUTH POMFRET — Following outcry from residents just days after the plan became public, the Woodstock Inn and Resort has abandoned a proposal to introduce an off-road driving school at the resort’s Suicide Six ski area.

The decision came within hours of a heated Pomfret Planning Commission public meeting via video conference on Monday in which town residents voiced anger about the proposal and at the prospect of becoming a magnet for intensive off-road vehicle activity along Class 4 roads.

The proposal for the ski area was intended to cater to owners of new Ford Bronco SUVs, one of four such programs to open around the country to promote Ford’s relaunch of the vehicle and the only one planned east of the Mississippi River.

“So that you hear it from me first, we have heard the Pomfret residents, and are very much aligned with the concerns of our neighbors, friends and family. This morning, our senior management team met with the stakeholders and have taken active steps and advised Adventure ORX to withdraw their state and local permit applications,” Tim Reiter, general manager of Suicide Six, posted on the Pomfret Listserv on Tuesday afternoon.

At the Monday Planning Commission meeting, Reiter, also a commission member, was grilled by Pomfret residents on why the local community had been not informed sooner about the plan, less than two weeks before a scheduled Act 250 hearing.

“It came upon us pretty quickly. We barely found out about in a casual conversation. Then I got a notification for Act 250 (application) itself,” said Bill Emmons, chair of the planning commission.

“The Inn could have come to Pomfret beforehand,” resident Betsy Siebeck said at the meeting. “In my experience this was really unusual and wrong.”

Of particular concern among Pomfret residents was the effect the off-road driving school — dubbed a “Bronco Off-Roadeo” — would have outside the ski area as Ford Bronco owners took to the network of Class 4 roads in surrounding communities.

“A new hub for off-roading will take people far into all the Class 4 roads,” said Cara DeFoor, a South Pomfret resident and who with her husband lives on a 50-acre property abutting Suicide Six. “We can’t even wrap our arms around the cascading effects over time and what that’s going to look like.”

The Woodstock Inn on March 23 filed an Act 250 application with the Vermont Natural Resources Board for approval to adapt Suicide Six during the summer season into an off-road driving school for Ford Bronco owners. The South Pomfret site would have been one of four driving schools around the country operated by Adventure ORX, which teaches new Ford Bronco owners how navigate their vehicle over off-road terrain.

Under the proposal outlined in the Act 250 application, the two-day driving school — offered free to new Ford Bronco owners — would run from May to October and entail a 2-mile loop course over old maintenance and logging roads on the ski area’s property in addition to a 6,500-square-foot garage in Suicide Six’s parking area to house up to 30 Ford Broncos as well as a 2,500-square-foot cleaning and washing area for the vehicles.

“The scope of the program was intended as a low-impact, slow-speed experience to a limited number of invited guests, similar to other programs that have existed in the state,” the Woodstock Inn said in a statement on Tuesday. “Resort management has reviewed several proposals to provide offseason use of the ski area over the years to maintain a sustainable year-round business cycle that is vital to the community. The intention was for a closely monitored off-road program.”

The Woodstock Inn said the Ford Bronco plan was intended as a way to generate revenue from the ski area during its offseason — the introduction of mountain biking during summer months, which also required Act 250 approval, never really generated the income hoped — by leasing the property to Adventure ORX. In addition, the Woodstock Inn itself would stand to gain from any guests coming to the driving school and staying at the resort in Woodstock.

Reiter explained that the plan for the off-road driving school, which the Woodstock Inn had been quietly negotiating with Ford since last year, was seen as a critical move to turn around a money-losing operation at the ski area

“We’re talking a significant investment that turns us from a completely not viable business to making our business potentially viable,” he told the approximately dozen Pomfret residents who joined the meeting on Monday.

Although Reiter defended the proposal on the grounds that it was designed as a low-impact use of Suicide Six during the offseason, many Pomfret residents cited Ford’s own marketing campaign on the internet that promoted the locations as embarkation points for wider off-road travel.

Yet while Pomfret had been kept in the dark about the plans for the Bronco driving school, the Off-Roadeo was already well-known in the off-road enthusiast community, according to Peter Vollers, a former Woodstock-area attorney who ran the Vermont Overland outing organization and now lives in New Mexico.

Vollers said he attended the Easter Jeep Safari last week, an annual event that attracts thousands of off-roaders in Moab, Utah, and “all (attendees) were talking about was the Bronco Off-Roadeo.” Although Vollers himself enjoys off-roading in his Land Rover and believes Pomfret residents had less to fear about the impact on Class 4 roads, he said he nonetheless understood the pushback.

“I’d been doing this for 20 years in Vermont and I never saw anyone abuse the local trails,” he said of off-road driving. “So I think it’s a good thing but I do understand the local concerns.”

Scott Woodward, a former member of both the Pomfret Selectboard and Planning Commission, said he was “trying to withhold judgment” on the Suicide Six plan until the Act 250 hearing, but echoed the sentiments of many who took to the town’s Listserv this week to protest the idea.

“My initial reaction was this has the potential to create a number of off-site impacts, which may be fine on Suicide Six but (outside the property) could result in traffic congestion and safety issues.” He noted that Class 4 roads are used by hikers, people walking their dogs, mountain bikers and horse riders.

Mixing those uses with off-road traffic “becomes a volume issue pretty quickly.”

But perhaps what stuck in people’s craw the most was the way the Woodstock Inn — frequently spoken of as a good neighbor with a heritage that goes back to the late philanthropists and environmentalists Laurance and Mary Rockefeller — dropped the Suicide Six plan on the town of Pomfret.

“First and foremost it was the lack of prior consultation and notice that took everybody completely by surprise,” said Richard Cellini, who lives about 3 miles from the ski area. “A dog doesn’t get lost on the road here without people noticing,” adding that “you can’t have Broncos and horses on the same trail.”

Indeed, the Rockefeller name was invoked at Monday’s Planning Commission meeting.

At one point during the meeting, Emmons, the Planning Commission chair, rhetorically asked “What would Laurance say?” about the Woodstock Inn’s plan to introduce off-roading at Suicide Six.

“I think you know the answer to that,” Betsy Siebeck shot back.

“I knew Laurance,” Emmons said. “I know the answer to that.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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