Snodgrass expansion issue turning divisive

Town Council debates its letter to Forest Service

Months into the latest chapter in the debate on expanding lift-served skiing onto Snodgrass Mountain, fissures in the community are starting to show.



Town Council member Skip Berkshire, who has been marginally supportive of the expansion, says he has been a target of a vicious poster campaign that named him, among others. At the same time, a Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce survey found some business owners afraid to speak up in favor of the issue, for fear of their businesses suffering.
The poster campaign, whose perpetrator is unknown, was decried during the Crested Butte Town Council meeting on Monday, April 21 with Mayor Alan Bernholtz saying he thought Berkshire had been even-handed in their conversations on the Snodgrass issue. “I don’t think you should be painted that way,” he said to Berkshire.
Bernholtz appeared less sympathetic toward business owners who may feel intimidated about speaking out in favor of Snodgrass expansion, noting that the reason they may not want to voice their opinions is due to overwhelming opposition to the plan.
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Crested Butte resident Shelley Thomas took issue with Bernholtz’s statement, recalling some community members’ reaction to a proposal to allow heli-skiing near Crested Butte. She noted that a friend had moved out of town after being threatened over the issue. “There have been people who will take it too far,” she said.
The Town Council was meeting on Monday night to discuss a proposed letter to Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG) Forest Service supervisor Charlie Richmond for the second time to outline the town’s views on the expansion.
In 2005, CBMR submitted a preliminary proposal to the Forest Service for consideration before it officially entered the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, which would determine impacts of the development.
While a formal proposal has not been submitted, the current design, dubbed “Snodgrass Lite” by its proponents, calls for three lifts on the 11,145-foot-high Snodgrass Mountain, a smaller beginner ski lift and a connecting lift from the mountain to the main resort. One lift would dip into the Washington Gulch drainage but would not be accessible from homes in that area. The resort made the decision not to develop the mountain’s north face, which borders the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic.
The Forest Service and CBMR agreed to explore potential “deal breakers” before the federal agency accepts the resort’s official application into the NEPA process. Those deal breakers include the mountain’s geology, community support, and impacts on the neighboring RMBL.
With the Forest Service poised to decide whether or not to accept the resort’s application, the Crested Butte Town Council has been taking pains to ascertain where the community stands on the Snodgrass issue.
The Town Council held a work session on Monday, March 24 that saw the majority of those who spoke in opposition to the expansion. Town Clerk Eileen Hughes reported 40 town residents spoke in opposition to CBMR’s planned expansion of lift-served skiing onto Snodgrass Mountain, as did 11 residents from outside town.
In response to the hearing, 506 people—91 town residents among them—signed a letter in support of CBMR’s expansion plans and presented it to the Town Council during its meeting on April 7.
During the same meeting, Chamber of Commerce executive director Christi Matthews presented the results of a survey of chamber business members. Sixty percent of 134 responding business owners were in favor of lift-served skiing on Snodgrass Mountain, with 31 percent opposed and 9 percent unsure.
Matthews said 82 businesses located in Crested Butte responded to the survey, with 56 percent in support, 36 percent opposed to, and 7 percent unsure. The same survey showed 27 percent of 133 responding businesses owners saying they were concerned about sharing their opinion on Snodgrass because of negative impacts on their business.
The Friends of Snodgrass Mountain also sent a copy of its petition, signed by 1,360 people, to the Town Council.
During the Monday night meeting, Bernholtz congratulated the Town Council on its open discussions—noting that the result will be a well-reasoned and balanced letter to Richmond.
Crested Butte Town Council member Leah Williams was first to comment that the draft the council had received needed improvement. She said she wanted to shape it into something that could be signed by the entire council. “I’m not sure if that’s possible,” she said.
Williams was worried that unequivocal statements might preclude the town from discussions about the mountain’s future. “I think the wording of the letter can be improved,” she said.
Roughly, the draft letter outlined the public comment that the town had received and concluded that the majority, regardless of where they lived, opposed lift-served skiing on Snodgrass. The draft went on to identify areas of particular concern, including traffic, open space, development of nearby valleys, water use, affordable housing, habitat loss and impacts on the RMBL.
The draft concluded by noting the town’s historic opposition to Snodgrass expansion plans and asked the Forest Service to “permanently remove all proposals for lift served skiing on Snodgrass Mountain from future consideration.”
Town Council member Skip Berkshire agreed with Williams, but questioned whether it was worth discussing further when he was in a clear minority. “Is it an exercise in futility?”
In response to Williams, Bernholtz said he wasn’t worried about garnering a seat at the table, noting that CBMR has not been included the town in its planning processes up to now. “I’m not ready to try buttering up or positioning myself, so maybe I’m at the table,” he said, noting that the majority of the people he’s spoken with are against the proposal. “I’ve heard from the people of this town,” he said and urged them to craft a simple letter outlining the town’s opposition.
Specifically, he said the residents he’d talked to are concerned with: open space and habitat loss, water usage of the proposed ski resort expansion, and development of Washington Gulch. “Those are the issues,” he said
Town Council members Kimberly Metsch, Reed Betz and Dan Escalante said they supported the draft letter. “I feel like this letter is extremely thorough,” Metsch said, “I feel like it’s an honest portrayal.”
Berkshire took issue with letter’s assertion that the majority of residents are opposed to Snodgrass expansion, noting by his calculation the community was basically deadlocked. “My concern with the letter—and I think it was thorough—was factual inaccuracies,” he said. “We’re basing our position on the 50 people who spoke on March 24 and saying that’s the majority of the town,” he said.
In response, Bernholtz said it was difficult to rely on the opinions represented by petition signed by 1,360 people against the expansion, a letter signed by 506 people in favor of the expansion and the results of a survey of chamber businesses.
He argued that residents had the opportunity to speak at the council’s work session or send an individual letter. “If they don’t want to come and speak with us, it’s not our issue,” he said. “Residents of this town have clearly said they don’t want lifts on Snodgrass.”
The Town Council discussed who it should be representing in its letter. Town Council member Dan Escalante said his first responsibility was to the people who voted him into office. “It’s to the folks that are registered voters here,” he said.
However, Bernholtz noted that the work session and public comment period were open to the wider community to comment.
Metsch questioned how far-reaching the Town Council should be—noting some signers on the 500-signature letter were from property owners, not full-time residents.
During the discussion, Bernholtz recognized members of the public.
Crested Butte resident Shelley Thomas said she understood that the Town Council would likely send a letter reflecting its own majority, which is opposed to lift-served skiing on Snodgrass. “I think that’s just fine,” she said, but agreed with Berkshire that the current draft was inaccurate. “There are certainly lots of facts that aren’t true that are presented as facts… It’s quite ridiculous.”
Chamber of Commerce executive director Christi Matthews urged the Town Council to take the concerns of business owners very seriously—even if they aren’t voting residents. “They do play an important role in making our community function,” she said.
Escalante asked whether the survey included businesses that were not chamber members. Matthews said the survey did not, noting that fact was stated in her letter to the Town Council.  
Crested Butte resident Dan Morse urged the Town Council to send one letter to the Forest Service that represented the town.
The Town Council discussed briefly whether it would have a unanimous decision to approve a letter. The Town Council agreed to have director of planning and community development John Hess draft a new version of a letter, which will be presented at its May 5 meeting. Town Council member Billy Rankin was absent from the meeting.
The town is continuing to accept letters on the issue but it’s unclear if they will be considered. After the meeting, Bernholtz said he would not consider any more public comment on the issue before sending the final letter to Richmond.

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